Sunday Trading

Easter may have only just been and gone, but the minds of many large-scale retailers in England and Wales are already on the Christmas season. Specifically, they are focused on the fact that Boxing Day this year will fall on a Sunday, when their opening hours will be constrained to a maximum of six on what is traditionally the first day of the New Year sales.

Although, after a bitter public and parliamentary battle, the Sunday Trading Act 1994 deregulated shop opening hours for many shops, it did so only within certain limits for most retail enterprises with over 3,000 square feet of selling space (‘most’ since certain categories of large shops are exempted).

On ordinary Sundays large shops in England and Wales can only trade for six hours, while they are prohibited from serving retail customers at all on Easter Sunday, a ban which was subsequently extended to Christmas Day by the Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004. This contrasts with Scotland, where no restrictions apply.

Sections of the retail industry periodically clamour for further liberalization, encountering the opposition of Christian groups (who are in favour of keeping Sunday special), trade unions (principally USDAW) representing the interests of shopworkers, and the owners of small (typically local and often independent) shops (who feel that their larger counterparts already have sufficient retail advantage over them).

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (in its words) ‘carried out a wide ranging and thorough review in 2006 and concluded that the current laws strike the right balance between all the interests involved.’ This review was preceded by a public consultation the year before.

In the run-up to Easter, the controversy began to flare up again. Shopping Centre ran a well-balanced article on ‘Can retail survive with the current laws on Sunday trading?’ in its issue for 17 March. The Garden Centre Group tested the law on Easter Sunday by opening many of its stores to its ‘members’ for browsing and advice, but not for purchasing.

Many retail leaders have voiced their fears about the negative impact which curtailed Boxing Day trading might have on their revenues, not least given that in 2009 footfall in UK high streets reached a record on Boxing Day, which fell on a Saturday. Topshop, New Look, House of Fraser, Selfridges, Hamleys, Boots and Burton are understood to have written to the Business Secretary to urge deregulation.

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which speaks for 33,500 local shops, has now entered the fray with a new opinion poll. This it commissioned from GfK NOP among a representative sample of 1,000 adults aged 16 and over, interviewed on 26-28 March. ACS issued a press release about its findings on 6 April, which will be found at:

On the Boxing Day issue, 85% of respondents opposed any extension to trading hours for this day. Those in favour numbered 13%.

More generally, 76% of the public supported the current six-hour limit for large shops on ordinary Sundays, and of the 19% who wanted the law changed, 70% advocated stronger restrictions on Sunday opening (mostly its complete abolition). Of the total sample, only 5% wanted large shops to be allowed to open longer on Sundays.

USDAW has issued a press statement welcoming the findings of the ACS poll. Its own survey of 500 shopworkers in 2008 showed that 92% rejected any relaxation of Sunday trading law, with 56% actually wanting to work fewer hours on a Sunday. Interestingly, the British Retail Consortium is not actively campaigning on the topic since the opinions of its membership are apparently divided.

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