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Jonathan James: The pragmatic case for keeping Sunday trading rules

James JonathanJonathan James is owner of James Gravens and Sons, based in Cambridgeshire. He is also Chairman of the Association of Convenience Stores.

Alex Deane’s piece against Sunday trading rules concerned me. As a retailer with six stores, two of which are restricted on a Sunday and four that are not, and as a Conservative, I think I am well placed to make a case for retaining Sunday trading laws based on pragmatism rather than ideology.

Alex’s argument is based on his premature conclusion that ‘the period will pass without terrible harm done to the retail sector.’ We all hope so, and the mood of national celebration and the good weather (at last) will hopefully lead to a sales boost, regardless of the relaxation of Sunday trading. Any conclusions on the impact on retail have to be much more carefully considered before making sweeping assumptions of the kind he does.

The decision to change the Sunday trading rules was a kneejerk decision based on the soundbite that ‘visitors should see that the UK is open for business’. It certainly wasn’t based on robust evidence, and Ministers admitted as much during the passage of the Sunday Trading (Olympics) Bill. Outside of a small number of retail operators based in and around Oxford Street and the Olympic Park there was little evidence of a clamour for extended hours during this 8 week time period.

Indeed since the announcement in March we have seen indecision on behalf of retailers unsure as to whether these extra trading hours are an opportunity or just a costly hassle. As it turns out most have gone for some form of extension, a decision I suspect is based far more on a fear of losing out than a genuine sense that this will boost sales. If retailers were convinced of the opportunity would we not have seen a lot more advertising and communication with customers to make them aware of the new opening hours?

Personally, I haven’t opened my larger stores for additional hours because I want to trade in a sustainable way with other local retailers – competing hard but offering a vibrant high street for local people.  I can make that decision because it’s my business, but larger retailer under pressure from investors will probably open longer.

Alex also recounts the common refrain that Sunday Trading relaxation would contribute to economic growth. There has never been any evidence that extending trading hours for the biggest stores would lead to overall increase in sales in the retail sector.

The independent cost benefit analysis commissioned in 2007 by the then DTI, the only major study on this issue, concluded that there would be no overall increase in consumer spending. Rather, they argued the benefit would be in shifting spending from the small (economically inefficient) stores to the larger (economically efficient) stores, and the increase in ‘consumer convenience’ to which they attributed a monetary value.  

So if there is a case for relaxing Sunday Trading it is not about increasing sales, but about increasing ‘productivity’. On this basis you cannot also argue, as Alex does, that the result will be more jobs. A permanent relaxation means people spending the same amount overall, but spending an even larger proportion in the bigger stores - the stores that employ proportionately fewer people. 

Finally, Alex believes Sunday trading laws are unfair to larger stores. Independents have to battle against competitors armed with massive buying power and advertising budgets every day. If Sunday trading laws do give small shops one small advantage, is that really unfair when you look at the whole picture?

The reasons to keep Sunday trading rules haven’t changed because of the Olympics. The rules are a compromise that the vast majority support. Changing the law based on ideology would upset a delicate balance that keeps a diverse retail market.


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