Open all hours (well, almost): The law finally changes tomorrow, but the battle over Sunday shopping will continue, argues Tim Jackson

Click to follow
THE NEW Sunday Trading Act, whose passage through Parliament last winter caused such a storm, comes into effect tomorrow. Yet it seems unlikely that it will prove the social disaster predicted by those who wanted to restrict the opening of shops on Sundays, or the revolution in choice for which consumers' organisations had hoped.

Since the majority of shops that will open tomorrow were also open last Sunday, most shoppers will be hard put to notice the difference that the the law has made. Only three major retailers will open for the first time - Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser and Waitrose - and many of their stores will remain closed.

The front-line of legal objectors has also fallen strangely silent. Opponents of the change had feared that retailers might try to avoid their new obligations to their staff - in particular, the right of the employee to refuse to work on Sundays.

But the legal department of Usdaw, the biggest retailing trade union, says that it neither has, nor expects, cases connected with the new arrangements for Sunday working. British retail chains may have been willing to flout an unenforceable and discredited old law on opening hours; but they seem to be respecting their employees' rights.

The decision taken by Parliament last year seems to have calmed the controversy, and to have done so by a reform that falls short of the abolition of restrictions that Margaret Thatcher had tried to introduce in 1986.

The law allows stores in England and Wales with a floor area of 280 square metres or less to open for as long as they like on Sunday. Larger stores, which can open for up to six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm, risk fines of pounds 50,000 if they exceed the time limit.

They must notify the local council of their intended opening hours, so that inspectors can keep track of Sunday trading. Those that do not stick to their declared Sunday hours, or fail to display them correctly, can be prosecuted and fined.

Despite the present calm, tomorrow's openings cannot be the end of the Sunday trading affair. Although the new regulations and enforcement mechanisms make it far less attractive for large shops to break the law, it will not be long before the arbitrary nature of the rules causes friction.

The most likely target of criticism will be the use of floor area to determine which stores may open without restrictions. Floor area is easy to measure, which may be why Parliament chose it as the criterion. However, the new rule will lead to the absurdity of one store opening for only six hours while a competitor around the corner - marginally smaller but with more employees, more products, and a bigger turnover - is free to open all day.

The law will also institutionalise the different treatment of superstores such as Ikea and Do It All on the one hand, and shopping centres such as north London's Brent Cross or Gateshead's Metrocentre on the other. The stand-alone retailers will be subject to the new law; the shopping centres, which may be three or four times the size but are made up of dozens of separate units, will not.

The law will also permit a double standard between people who work in shops and those in most other industries. Retail employees will be allowed to opt out of working Sundays after a notice period, even if they specifically agreed to work Sundays when first hired. People who work in cinemas, restaurants, or who drive buses or produce Monday newspapers, will have no such luxury.

If these anomalies were the price of a stable Sunday trading regime, they might be acceptable. The problem is that the two lobbies which combined to prevent free trade on Sundays - the sabbatarians and the would-be protectors of small shops - will find that the new law does not achieve their objectives.

So long as they and their families work in shops and nowhere else, those who want their Sundays to be special will find their private observance no more disturbed than it has been in the past. But those who want other people's Sundays to be special will be less happy. The 11 million consumers who currently go shopping on Sundays will undoubtedly increase in number.

Shopworkers who prefer to work Sunday and take a weekday off instead - there is a waiting-list of such people at Sainsbury's - will continue to do so.

According to statistics assembled by the Consumers' Association, almost nine of every 10 British shops will fall below the size threshold, and will thus be free to open all the Sunday hours the good Lord sends.

What of the self-styled protectors of small shops in city centres? Since the out-of-town shopping malls will be free to open all day on Sunday, they will pose as great a competitive threat to high streets as on every other day, and will continue to raise issues for environmentalists and city planners alike.

Arguably, the superstores - whether they sell DIY goods, furniture or food - serve a different market from that served by small shops. Families who intend to go by car to Tesco for their week's groceries but arrive after closing time will hardly want to walk around eight different high street shops instead, lugging their shopping home by hand.

If the battle over Sunday trading shows anything, it is the futility of trying to protect small shops by regulation and restricting consumer choice. Local independent retailers may not be able to compete on price or on product variety with the formidably managed national superstore chains. But they can defend themselves by exploiting other advantages - something they are only now beginning to do. Small shops can offer a range of products that is narrow but eclectic - such as local cheeses, vegetables and sausages, which are considered standard across continental Europe but still thought of as speciality items in Britain. Their staff, free from the exigencies of superstore timekeeping, can be friendly and more expert. Their window displays can be more attractive. High streets could club together, as they do in Japan, to offer special promotions and discounts to regular shoppers. Shops might even start to offer the free delivery services that are standard in many American cities but still a luxury here.

With the numerous possibilities open to flexible small retailers, it is perhaps no wonder that the Federation of Small Businesses, which numbers all kinds of local shops among its 70,000 members, has been in favour of abolishing all Sunday restrictions since 1989. Amid all the uncertainty about the future of British retailing, one prediction can be made with confidence: the battle over Sunday shopping is not finished yet.

(Photograph omitted)