Let’s see some proof of this ‘Olympic boost’ before extending Sunday trading hours permanently

Janice Atkinson for The Daily Mail
16th August 2012

The arguments against Sunday trading have been well-rehearsed. From the religious perspective and threat to family life, to trade union concerns over working hours, all have their merits.

On the other side, some economists are using increased retail figures to call for the permanent extension of Sunday trading hours – which were relaxed for the duration of the Olympics.

The Office for National Statistics today reports a small increase in retail sales in July, a period which included the first two days of the Olympics. But a large part of the three per cent increase can be attributed to a ‘blip’ in sales of automotive fuel.

Despite the absence of data for the rest of the fortnight of the Games, individual retailers are also claiming that increased footfall represents an Olympics ‘boost’

However, this should be measured against the bottom line of sales, turnover and profit.  In itself, increased footfall is a totally erroneous argument for more liberalisation to boost the economy as footfall does not equate to £s spent.

Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, which regularly receives my footfall and cash, reports that trade was up by nine per cent in the days following the Olympics.  Meanwhile, trade on High Streets remained depressed.   But clever Bluewater does have a roof and is therefore weatherproof, unlike the high streets. It also held Olympic-related events and brought in giant TV screens that are thought to have been a big draw for people.

Indeed, I was in Bluewater last Sunday and noticed a significant drop in footfall after 4pm.  If greater footfall doesn’t necessarily mean higher sales, lower footfall DOES mean lower sales. You can go to Bluewater (to watch the Olympics, or shelter from the rain) without buying anything, but you can’t buy anything from Bluewater without going there in the first place.

Granted, John Lewis reports an increase in food and in Olympic-related merchandising and large TVs. The middle classes evidently celebrated by gulping down Heston Blumenthal’s Lapsang Souchong Tea Smoked Salmon which enjoyed a sales surge of more than 600 per cent. And, peculiarly, sales of cleaning products surged by 35 per cent.  All this means is that more people stayed in and watched the Olympics, celebrated with more food and drink, and presumably cleaned their homes more before guests arrived! This is no indication of the success of longer Sunday trading hours.

Before permanently liberalising Sunday trading laws a few simple calculations and comparisons should be made.

  • How much did sales increase during the Olympics? •    What fraction of this increase was down to extended Sunday trading hours? •    What goods were bought during these hours?

If the extended trading hours did not contribute materially to the overall increase, did the extra hours warrant the cost, both to families who work in the retail industry and the bottom line in turnover for companies?

If the figures show that the purchases made during extended hours were mainly Olympics-related i.e. larger TVs, sportswear, souvenirs and food and drink, is it worth continuing the extended hours beyond the Olympics?

The economy does benefit from increased consumer sales. However, we cannot just spend our way out of a long, deep recession through high street sales.  UK consumer debt, the largest in the Western world, partly got us into the recession in the first place, with unsustainable household spending predicated on rising house prices and salary increases.

It is argued that liberalisation would increase jobs in the retail sector.  But I would argue that if people haven’t got the money to spend, they are not going to spend more in longer opening hours so the jobs will not be created.

I don’t go to church, I enjoy shopping, I love long family Sunday lunches and I enjoy my leisure time at the weekend with my husband and children.  I really do not need longer hours on a Sunday to wander around Bluewater.

It is too premature to predict the overall impact of the Olympics on consumer spending.  It may be that when the ONS releases figures for August it will show an Olympic boost to the economy.  But for the moment, increased opening hours are just a blue skies hope of boosting the economy.

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