Is extending opening hours the Christmas miracle high street retailers need?

In Industry Comment, Industry News On
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Thomas Quinton, chief customer officer, REPL, discusses extending opening hours (including Sundays) to allow retailers to recoup some of the revenue lost over the past year, and to focus this initiative particularly on the run up to Christmas.

The government’s decision to once again close all non-essential shops in England in what has been dubbed lockdown 2.0 has dealt another significant blow to the entire retail sector. Although the current restrictions are only in place until 2nd December, being closed for several weeks in the run up to the festive season, including for Black Friday, is a cause for concern for many electrical retailers around the country who are still feeling the impact of the first lockdown. These worries are being compounded further by the acceleration of online shopping, with new research finding that of those who did more online shopping during lockdown compared to prior, half have maintained these behaviours post-lockdown. Consequently, many bricks-and-mortar retailers are currently calling on the government to do more to help them maximise sales once the restrictions have been lifted to boost post-pandemic recovery and aide them in the fight against online retail.

One initiative that has come to the forefront, backed by retailers including Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, is to extend opening hours, including on Sundays. This would give electrical retailers more opportunity to recoup some of the revenues they have lost over the course of the year, due to rates and unsold stock, for example, while also offering consumers greater flexibility and convenience to shop when it suits them most. However, is extending opening hours in the run up to Christmas, particularly on Sundays which would require a change in law, viable and could it give rise to long-term changes to the high street?

The deregulation of Sunday trading

Extending trading hours on a Sunday is a contentious issue that has been debated on and off for many years, with David Cameron making a failed bid to abolish Sunday trading laws in 2016. However, four years on, the case for deregulating Sunday trading has a greater sense of urgency as electrical retailers see it as a path to post-pandemic recovery.

Sunday trading arguably penalises bricks-and-mortar stores, limiting trading to just six hours and making high street shopping far less flexible than shopping online, particularly for those with traditional Monday to Friday, 9-5 jobs. In the short-term, extending opening hours on Sundays could enable retailers to increase sales in the run up to Christmas as consumers are free to shop when it suits them, rather than having to fit it into a narrow window, which runs the risk of them turning to online services. This in turn would help bricks-and-mortar stores recover lost revenue and give them more opportunity to sell stock that has been building up.

It also wouldn’t be the first time that the laws were eased under special circumstances, with Sunday trading laws suspended for eight weeks for the 2012 Olympic Games. This Christmas is a prime opportunity to once again relax the rules to the benefit of both retailers, consumers and the economy as a whole.

Why now?

This Christmas is set to be unlike any other, so retailers must be prepared to embrace new ways of doing things to ensure this crucial trading time is optimised. Extending opening hours on a daily basis would provide the flexibility for them to do this. With extended opportunity in which to shop, consumers would be able to visit stores when it’s most convenient for them and they may be less likely to turn to online retailers, such as Amazon, to get their hands on products quickly. The ability to nip to a local shop at an unusual time to pick up a product, rather than having to wait for it to be delivered, will help high street shops to build stronger relationships with customers, making them the go-to destination.

Longer opening hours would also help electrical retailers to better manage the flow of people in and out of their stores. With the threat of COVID-19 still looming, shoppers having more freedom to go to stores earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon, for example, would help to avoid rushes at certain times of day and ensure stores remain safe environments with effective social distancing. Additionally, with many retailers likely to have a significant amount of Christmas stock, increasing the time during which they can sell it will help them to maintain margins and minimise waste at the end of the season.

The wider impact of longer opening hours

While there are substantial advantages to extending opening hours this December, retailers must also be aware of how it will impact other aspects of their business and their employees. Retail workers have faced significant upheaval this year and for some being able to pick up extra hours or shifts in the run up to Christmas will be welcome news. However, if the change becomes permanent it may leave others feeling like they have little choice but to work longer hours or on certain days. As such, retailers should be careful to offer their employees as much flexibility as possible to pick which shifts work best for them and to swap days when needed. Also, with shops open longer, retailers will have to think about when they will schedule deliveries to arrive and when staff will be able to restock shelves to limit the impact on customers.

Extended opening hours for life and not just for Christmas?

If the high street is to remain competitive a change is needed and extending opening hours can go a long way to giving bricks-and-mortar retailers an opportunity to gain an edge over their online counterparts. Currently, Sunday trading laws are seen by many retailers as a substantial inhibitor to post-pandemic recovery. Therefore, giving retailers the choice to open longer should they believe it is both profitable and sustainable will help them to recover lost revenue and offer a more convenient service to customers.

Trialling this initiative in the short-term over the Christmas period and measuring consumer demand would act as a good indicator of whether the change is warranted in the long-term and if England, would instead benefit from unregulated Sunday trading, like Scotland already enjoys. After all, let’s not forget that England remains one of the few countries to still adhere to Sunday trading laws, with many European countries foregoing these laws over the last decade to reflect societal changes and evolving consumer requirements.

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