Two surveys in a fortnight have confirmed that, as far as consumers are concerned, the balance between big shops and small shops on Sunday trading is about right. An exclusive survey by BMRB, commissioned by Convenience Store and the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), shows that an overwhelming 68% of shoppers do not want big stores to open for longer on a Sunday.
While most consumers shop on a Sunday to some degree, only 28% use exclusively large shops to do so, with 63% using a combination of big and small shops and 9% using local shops only. And even among the 28% who want longer shopping hours for big stores, more than half do not want any change in the law if it would threaten the viability of small shops.
The results blow out of the water claims made by the Deregulate campaign that shoppers want either complete deregulation of Sunday shopping hours or an extension to the current six-hour opening regime for large stores.
ACS chief executive David Rae commented: “Once and for all, this survey should stop the false idea that customers want longer Sunday trading hours and it sends a stark message to the groups who purport to represent consumers’ interests and who claim that longer opening hours on a Sunday would benefit consumers. These groups have totally misread the views of customers, and I hope they will retract their support for longer Sunday trading hours immediately.
“Support for longer Sunday trading hours has been based on one survey conducted in a shopping centre on a Sunday. This flawed methodology gave the wrong impression of what customers in general think about this issue. I would invite consumer groups and any interested parties to examine the methodology of the survey conducted by BMRB on behalf of Convenience Store and the ACS. It is this research that gives a true picture of consumer attitudes.
“Of course, it is the government that must look at this research most closely. There is no appetite for liberalisation of Sunday trading laws, and the government should abandon any idea it had to change the Act. If common sense prevails, this should be the end of any thoughts of changing the current Sunday Trading Act.”
The BMRB survey comes hot on the heels of a similar poll carried out on behalf of shopworkers’ union Usdaw - with similar results. The Usdaw poll, carried out by NOP, found that more than 60% of shoppers do not want extended opening hours.
Usdaw general secretary John Hannett said: “We have also conducted an independent survey that found 64% of shoppers don’t want longer hours on a Sunday and the results of this latest Convenience Store survey prove that there is a real and solid consensus emerging among Britain’s shoppers against any further deregulation of Sunday trading hours.
“We welcome this new survey that shows a very solid majority against any more deregulation of Sunday trading and solid support for the existing six hours for large stores.”
Sunday is a vitally important day for the small store sector. A second survey commissioned by C-Store, based on telephone interviews with 200 independent retailers, shows that 75% of stores would suffer lost trade if larger stores were able to open longer hours. A similar number of stores take 10% or more of their turnover on a Sunday.
Were this trade to be lost to the multiple grocers, the consequences would be dire. Nearly half of stores - 44% - would cut staff if the multiples were allowed to increase their opening hours and as many as 30% of independent c-stores would consider closing altogether if they lost their Sunday trade. Overall, 88% of small store operators want the law to stay as it is.
The importance of Sunday is further backed up by research from the Rural Shops Alliance (RSA). About 79% of rural retailers open on a Sunday, which accounts for about 15% of turnover. As many of these stores operate at the extreme edge of viability anyway, any loss of Sunday turnover could have catastrophic results.
RSA spokesman Trevor Dixon said: “Our members feel that Sunday opening is part of the social service they provide. There are fears that if they lost much more trade to the supermarkets it would be curtains for Sunday opening, and that would mean fewer jobs locally.”
It is significant that the main mover for change in the Sunday trading hours is Asda, which has no convenience stores. The two major supermarkets with substantial c-store holdings have been noticeably low-key on the subject. Although Tesco is reportedly on Asda’s side in the deregulation debate, it has made no major statement on the matter, while Sainsbury has publicly said it is opposed to any change to the status quo.
Operators of all sizes who run small stores know that there is a lot to lose were there to be a sales free-for-all on a Sunday as well as the rest of the week. The battle lines have been drawn. Now it is up to government to do the right thing - nothing.
Morton Middleditch, who led the campaign against deregulation of Sunday trading 10 years ago, assesses the new battle.
If you were ever in doubt that we are poles apart from our supermarket cousins then you need only look at Sunday trading and the challenge to the OFT ruling over market definition. When it comes to lobbying on food, environment or the minimum wage, our problems are the same. But we have a fight for survival against them on these other key issues, and if it means falling out with them, then there’s no doubt about which course to take.
It’s frightening how different the current scenario is to when I campaigned as chairman of OPEN (Outlets Providing Everyday Needs) for the right to keep Sunday trade for small stores.
From 1985 to 1995 we battled in an environment in which it was illegal for the majors to open. While some Trading Standards Officers turned a blind eye, most of the supermarkets didn’t want to be accused of flouting the law and so stayed shut. This was fine for the independents, who opened illegally because they were not being challenged either.
The campaign we waged was long and reached a peak when government produced three options for inclusion in a bill - none of which we wanted. One was total deregulation. The other was partial deregulation campaigned for by the Shop Hours Reform Council (superstores and DIY sheds). This group argued for
a six-hour opening for large shops and for those under 3,000sq ft to be allowed to open all day.
Keep Sunday Special, realising that it could not turn the clock back, campaigned alongside Retailers for Shops Act Reform (RSAR), seeking to limit opening to shops that provide recreation, emergencies, social gatherings and travel (REST) which would include c-stores. RSAR was a powerful lobby and included the John Lewis Partnership, Marks & Spencer, CWS and smaller food multiples. For RSAR to support Keep Sunday Special it required the third option include the ruling that all stores, irrespective of size, could open in the four weeks before Christmas.
OPEN needed an ally as, clearly, fighting on our own and seeking opening restricted to small c-stores meant we would lose. Some form of expansion of opening hours was on the cards and, if nothing else, government needed to stop retailers flouting the law.
We threw our weight behind the RSAR option. With this compromise and a requirement that workers be protected from compulsory Sunday working we felt we had a chance of winning.
OPEN allied itself in the coalition with RSAR while keeping its own separate identity. We rode on the back of their clout while broadening their appeal to include the “little guys”. OPEN’s campaigning zeal and RSAR’s impeccable credentials with government gave us a good chance of winning the debate and free vote in Parliament.
We came second! We lost by 18 votes; partial deregulation won. But it was RSAR and OPEN’s intervention that modified SHRC thinking to include partial deregulation and secure a lifeline for independents.
So what does the sector do now that this BMRB research pours scorn on the argument from the other side that everyone wants total Sunday freedom?
We have no natural allies - this is a straight fight that the ACS has to wage, but it does not have to do so alone. The new affinity with the FWD on the OFT issue has to be made to work on Sunday trading. ACS has to work along with the NFRN, Master Bakers - anyone operating small stores. It may be a long fight, but it is crucial to our future security to retain the status quo - even for a few more years.
To win a lobby campaign we must have a defendable position - the potential loss of the neighbourhood shop and reduced choice for the consumer can be a winning position.
We need research, too. We have it in abundance, especially with this latest survey, but it must be expanded.
We also have to be in the battle for the long term and acknowledge that it will require funding. Finally, we need someone with commitment and passion to lead the campaign and a retailer to front it.