Yesterday (Sunday) we went shopping in Oxford Street. These days, there is nothing unusual about going to the shops on Sunday and Sunday is one of the busiest shopping days of the week. This being so, it is hard to imagine that 12 years ago, such shopping expeditions would have been impossible, or at least illegal.
Until 1994, shops were not allowed to open on Sundays except for a few special outlets. The Sunday Trading Act of 1994 finally allowed shops to trade on Sundays but with restrictions: a shop that is less than 280 square metres in size can open as long as it likes on Sundays but shops larger than this can open for only six hours between 10am and 6pm. That is still the case because although proposals were put forward earlier this year to liberalize opening hours, there was no enthusiasm for a change.
We decided that the best place to go for the purchases we had in mind was John Lewis in Oxford Street. We arrived at 11:25 a.m. to find ourselves standing among a gaggle of people at the door. The doors are glass and behind them we could see uniformed shop security personnel waiting. The opening hours displayed beside the door informed us that on Sunday John Lewis opens from 12 noon to 6 p.m. so we decided to go and have a coffee and come back but just as we turned to go, the time now being 11:30 a.m., the security people opened the doors and everyone streamed in.
To cut a long story short, it appears that John Lewis opens at 11:30 to allow its customers 30 minutes “browsing time”. During this half-hour, you can walk around the store, examine the goods, seek the advice of sales staff and even, as I did, carry your purchase to the upstairs coffee lounge. The one thing you cannot do is pay for your goods and leave the store with them.
This of course raises the interesting question of how you define “open” in the context of a shop. A naive view (supported by the meaning of the word) is that a shop is “open” if the doors are open and customers can enter the premises. According to John Lewis, however, a shop is “open” only if you can actually pay for goods in it. I am not complaining, just wondering how the semantic issues were resolved and by whom.
I also thought it rather sneaky of them to open the coffee bar on the dot of 11:30 because they are sure to pick up trade from people who arrive early and have to wait until 12 to pay for their goods.
Personally, I can see no reason for restricting Sunday trading hours. If religious people want to keep Sunday as “the Lord’s Day” or others want to “Keep Sunday Special” they can do so: they have no right to impose their predilections on the rest of us. People can go to church if they wish to do so: the fact that I am carrying a wire basket around Sainsbury’s provides no obstacle to this.
It is rather ironic that when Constantine in 321 AD made an edict that Sunday should be a day exempt from all public work, he chose the very day that was already dedicated to Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun), the great rival of the Christian god, with whom Constantine’s name is still irrevocably linked. I see no reason why we should be prevented from shopping or any other normal activities on Sunday because of the religious prejudices of a Roman emperor 1,685 years ago.