The chancellor George Osborne has indicated that he intends to allow Sunday Trading laws to be relaxed, in the first major change to their regulation in over two decades.
Citing a "growing appetite" for shopping on a Sunday, his plans announced ahead of yesterday’s Budget are likely to give elected mayors and councils the ability to relax laws locally if they believe that it might boost economic activity.
Any changes chime with research carried out by Wunderman earlier this year that revealed that nearly 60 per cent of UK adults wanted a change in the trading hours, which currently restrict larger stores from only opening for six consecutive hours on a Sunday and are seen as a legacy of the days when religious considerations still influenced legislation.
However in a more secular age, and one where the ability to buy products online cannot be restricted at all (although their delivery generally is), the current situation looks increasingly obsolete.
Moreover, because larger stores have restricted Sunday trading hours imposed upon them, our research showed that many customers find themselves forced to shop at smaller retailers that charge more than their larger counterparts.
For the supermarkets, many of which are suffering from a decline in sales due to the rise of the low-cost discounters, any changes come as welcome news; major players such as Asda have lobbied hard to create a level playing field.
Equally the Treasury uses research from the New West End Company, which represents businesses in central London, that changes could create nearly 2,000 new jobs and £300 million in additional sales. The pressure group Open Sundays says that nationally, liberalising Sunday trading could benefit the UK economy by more than £20 billion over 20 years.
Given that Osborne’s budget announcements, which cut billions from the benefits bill in a bid to encourage more people out of welfare and into work, these factors that could boost the economy are likely to among the proposal’s key selling points.
Unsurprisingly the proposal hasn’t gone down too well with the smaller convenience retailers. The chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, James Plowman, has said that by giving local authorities responsibility for how the changes are implemented could lead to confusion.
The unions too aren’t impressed either and promised to campaign against the move, saying that it was not in the interest of the employees but rather benefitted big businesses.
Certainly there are concerns that it represents a creeping commercialisation of British society that could act to the detriment of families (although employees have a right to opt out of working on Sundays, anecdotal evidence suggests that right can be reduced if employers put pressure on their staff).
Plowman’s point is perhaps the most important. Politically, Osborne’s move seems very shrewd – he is reacting to popular opinion and throwing red meat to embattled big business. It can all be dressed up as part of a strategy of job creation and taking people out of welfare (retail is traditionally one of the poorest paying sectors of the economy) as well as wealth creation.
It also plays the devolution card – more power to local authorities. This means that they can ultimately be responsible for any negative impact that this has on small businesses within any local community as they are the ones that will have to decide whether to proceed or not.
While the proposed changes are still at a consultation stage, it is almost inconceivable that they will not eventually be implemented in order to align Britain to its international competitors – France recently relaxed its Sunday trading legislation while in the USA there are no laws at all.
In terms of keeping nearly everyone happy, although arguably not the workers (nor those who criticise the online retailers for their tax avoidance schemes), while also not taking ultimate responsibility for the outcome, then it looks like a political triumph.
Over 100 years after the 1912 Shop Act formally legislated on trading hours, Sundays will finally be treated like any other day in the week.
San Sharma is business and technology editor at Wunderman UK