BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 12:27 UK

How Sunday trading changed the UK


From the archive: Sunday trading begins

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Fifteen years ago, Sunday trading laws were introduced that led to a national love affair with shopping. The "day of rest" was never the same again.

"If England has not been invaded since 1066, it is because foreigners dread having to spend a Sunday there."

Church worship, Sunday papers, no rush-hour... some things tell you it's Sunday
Tell us what makes Sunday distinctive for you using the form below
We'll publish the best next week

So noted a retired British Army officer in a French work of fiction from the 1950s, a time when Sundays in the UK were a bit different from how they are now.

The biggest transformation has been since the early 1990s, when Sunday was still a day that commonly began with church worship, followed by roast lunch with the family and time at home together.

For many people today, that is still the norm, but a piece of legislation that is 15 years old this week has made Sundays generally more active and varied.

Although some shops had defied the law, the 1994 Sunday Trading Act allowed all smaller shops in England and Wales to open all day. Larger ones are still restricted to six hours of business between 10am and 6pm and cannot open on Easter Sunday.

DIY stores benefited from Sunday trading
DIY stores embraced the change

In Scotland, shops determine their own hours although - as they can south of the border - people working in retail and betting can opt out of working on Sundays if they wish.

The trading act was passed despite stiff resistance from trade unions, religious groups and even some large stores such as Marks and Spencer and Waitrose. Eight years earlier, attempts by Margaret Thatcher to deregulate Sunday trading led to her only Parliamentary defeat during her time as prime minister.

So when the law was finally passed, it was a huge step, says Professor Jeremy Baker, of ESCP Europe Business School.

"Sunday was a very symbolic day. It was a religious day and even for those people who are not religious it was a family day, a home day. So the idea of going out to the shops on this home day was genuinely shocking to people.

Sundays on high streets resembled other days

"You were supposed to spend the time at home, however boring it was. It was considered to be good for you. You were showing loyalty to the family."

The act helped to develop a new shopping culture and a new leisure pursuit, he says, but at a cost.

"Going to the shops became an event, even if you didn't buy anything, because you'd go and you'd walk around and have coffee. The shopping mall as a new city centre was very much accelerated by the law."

But the shopping boom that followed is now coming back to haunt the country in recession, says Mr Baker, because there are just too many shops.

Shops in many towns and villages remain closed on Sundays, and in those areas little has changed. Public transport still has a Sunday timetable all over the country, while most banks and theatres remain closed.

53% of people regularly shop on a Sunday
An estimated 14% of consumer expenditure, inc online shopping
Sunday is eBay's busiest day
421,000 more people work Sundays than pre-1994
From Verdict

But shopping malls and city centres are as busy as any other day. More than half the population regularly goes shopping on a Sunday, which means that hundreds of thousands of people have to work.

Where retail led, pubs followed. A year after the trading act, pubs were allowed to open all day on a Sunday. Previously they had to close between 3pm and 7pm.

The proliferation of televised football on Sundays - there are sometimes more top-level matches on a Sunday than a Saturday - provided pubs with an added attraction. Horse racing, cricket and rugby have followed its example.

It all means that Sundays are losing their intended meaning, says John Roberts, director of the Lord's Day Observance Society, because when God created the world he set aside one day that was different. It was also the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, he adds.

Watching football in the pub
Sunday prayers... watching football in the pub

"We've lost family life and one of the reasons we've lost it is that we have lost the principle that Sunday was for the family. There's a moral, social and economic element to this. I love sport but I reject the need for sport on a Sunday because people need a break. There are six other days to watch football."

One of the weaknesses of society is that people are not meeting together and eating together, he says.

"If mum is working and dad is down the pub and the other members of the family somewhere else, then family life is sliced through. And the country will never ever get back to stability until it gets back to valuing the family."

John Hannett is general secretary of trade union Usdaw
His fear that premium payments for staff would gradually disappear has come true
And he questions whether voluntary opt-out still applies, because of subtle pressures that can exist at work

Peter Lynas, of Keep Sunday Special, thinks the law was a compromise that has worked reasonably well.

"It has retained a certain distinction to Sundays but at the same time it respects the rights of people who want to go shopping and those that don't."

His concern is that the opt-out that the act gave to workers who didn't want to work on Sundays is not being enacted, and his group is calling for a "family day" for parents to be given a statutory day off at the weekend, if they want one.

It's great that some families make use of more visitor attractions being open to have exciting days out together, he says, but too many youngsters are dragged to the shopping mall every Sunday and think the day is all about consumerism.

But feminist Kathy Lette, author of the novel To Love, Honour and Betray, says Sundays are much more fun now than in 1988, when she moved to England from Australia.

In 1618, King James I decreed that people could do certain sports after church worship
Puritans later burned James's declaration
In early Victorian times, Sundays were popular for markets and family days out
But leisure activities were clamped down on later in her reign

"Let me tell you, Sundays back then were about as interesting as watching Albanian daytime television - as riveting as watching hair recede. Sundays broke my only commandment - thou shalt not bore."

It has definitely made life easier for working mothers, she says, because trying to fit in the food shop after work or on a busy Saturday is an ordeal.

"Working mums need options - and Sunday shopping has been a life saver."

A selection of your comments appears below.

I remember the change as a child and despite not being in a religious family and certainly not being a religious myself I thought it was a stupid idea. Sunday for me was the day I'd be taken to museums or bowling for example, and their was something quite unique about walking around town when it was practically closed down. Now of course were fighting off people who want to see all shops open of Christmas day which definitely shouldn't be allowed.
Ben Wilson, Nottingham

It's about time Sunday shopping was completely deregulated. I can see no reason why shops shouldn't be open all day on a Sunday. When I come home late on a Sunday it's a pain that I cannot visit the local supermarket. Laws based on religion have no place in a modern democracy.
Richard, Ilkley, UK

When the Sunday trading came into being I was an ardent supporter of it. Over the years I have changed my mind. When the shops were closed people seemed to be more relaxed, they had time for a quiet drink in the pub and they had time for their families. Now Sunday is just a day to do the shopping and any other jobs you did not get done during the week. No one seems to relax anymore. I would like to see a return to the days before shops opened on Sundays but I know it will never happen. There is too much money to be made from Sunday trading.
Michael , Lincoln

To see what life used to be like here on Sunday, just cross the Channel. Shops are still closed on Sunday in France and the town centres are deserted. Maybe the older generation prefer this, but when I was younger my Sundays there were awful. I like being able to do my weekly shop on Sunday morning. However I do think that staff should still get extra compensation for working Sunday. When Tesco began Sunday trading in 1992 I snapped up the opportunity to earn double-time.
Mark, Reading

When I was a youngster and in my early teens in the 1950s, I detested Sundays. Everything was either closed or seriously curtailed including public transport, swimming baths, sport activities, libraries and cinemas. Only paper shops were opened and they closed at noon. All, and I mean ALL, other shops were closed. The city centre was dead. In fact the whole day had a deathly air hanging over it. It's much, much, better now with everything open on Sundays and little curtailment. Great!
Mr M L Young, Newcastle upon Tyne

Where I live Sunday is the busiest retail day of the week. We have a large outdoor and indoor market - the outdoor one's only on a Sunday! I love shopping on Sundays before repairing to the pub to watch sport!
Janet Bunting, Morecambe

There's always some faction or other in society who wants to decide what we like and what we should all do. What's special about Sunday for me? It joins six other days in the week when I decide what I want to think and do for myself, without the advice from guilt-ridden clerics, self-interest groups, politicians, sociologists, lunatics or for that matter global capitalists!
Tim Cooper, Crowborough UK

As a child I was really bored on Sundays. I now miss the fact that it is little different to other days in the week and the enforced slow down and battery recharge that the old Sundays had. On my way home from church I drive past a shopping centre that is always busy. It makes me sad that so many people fill their day in this way. Sometimes we don't appreciate what we had until it's gone
Neal Killen, Belfast

Sundays are dreadful now - driving is worse than weekdays. Events fine, activities fine, but please please remove retailers' Sunday licence. The Tesco bun fight is worse than weekdays because of the shorter hours.
Phil Thomas, Wirral, England

Sunday was a family time. I find it heart breaking to see the constant erosion of family time, to be replaced with the latest shiny thing that you MUST have in order to be happy, yet it doesn't make you happy. But the next one will! I'm an A&E worker, and as such I work any given day and time at a high, but necessary, cost to my family and relationships. Why do people in non-essential services value their family below trinkets? If you spent a day a week working on relationships, do you think we would have the same divorce or youth crime rates?
Dave, Newcastle

If the Sunday trading law had been in place when I was younger, my memories of Sundays might not have been that it's the days family members are forced to vent their grievances and fights break out. All I can remember is hiding in my room, re-reading books I knew word for word or ... well, no, that was it really.
Michael, UK

Sunday trading gives people choices about how to spend their time. Lamenting the fact that people enjoy doing different things and calling it "heart breaking" that the "traditional" Sunday family time is being eroded is a regressive view. Long live freedom of choice.
Carole, Cheshire, UK

Sunday trading laws should be reverted back to how they were 15 years ago. I agree with the earlier comment "you don't know what you've lost until it's gone". The roads are congested, people are finding more opportunities to spend money they don't have and family time is being eroded. And as far as I'm concerned pub trading hours should revert back too.
Steve C, Macclesfield

Sundays don't have to be sacred for families to come together and enjoy spending time together.
Andrew B, Sunderland

If I want to shop or work on a Sunday, that's a matter between me and the business. Government has no place there, nor does anyone trying to enforce their religious views on me.
Kevin Elliott, Oxford, UK

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific