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Opinion: Convenience store success is about more than Sunday opening hours says Matthew Valentine

Proposed changes to the UK’s Sunday Trading laws are creating complaints – as they always do – from interested parties. As one who covered the last set of changes in 1994 this is familiar ground. But the world, and the nature of the arguments, has changed a lot in the last two decades.

Back then there were religious and social arguments to maintain the status quo, versus an overwhelming pressure from modernisers who fell broadly into two camps: retailers and those who were simply bored stiff every Sunday. In between were smaller retailers who wanted protection from the big supermarkets but had a natural inclination towards fewer restrictions on trade.

It is hard to credit that, so recently, the one retail option available to most UK consumers on a Sunday was the garden centre. Even pubs weren’t open all day on Sundays, maintaining a mid afternoon closing session and ‘Time gentlemen please’ at 10.30pm.

The compromise implemented in 1994 was to let stores over 3,000 sq ft open for six hours on a Sunday, letting small independents retain an opening hours advantage that would save the corner shop.

The interested parties this time around are different. Mainstream media coverage has barely mentioned religion, with most objections coming from convenience store operators.

It is easy to see why. The convenience sector has seen massive growth in the last few years, expanding hand in glove with change in our shopping habits. We now shop little and often; we stock up on staples on occasional trips to discounters and buy fresh meat and vegetables from a growing selection of specialist local vendors.

But are longer opening hours the only reason for the success of convenience stores?

We live increasingly convenience-focused lives. We are used to the shop-anytime culture of the internet, younger consumers simply can’t comprehend that shops won’t be open, we have tired of the massive choice at superstores and we are seeking a sense of authenticity. Add in a loss of consumer trust after some major food scandals and the argument that opening hours are behind the success of convenience stores begins to look thin.

In fact the growth in numbers of convenience stores didn’t take place in 1994. Objectively the growth in numbers and the increase in slickness in the sector has taken place in the last decade or less.

Will letting superstores open for an extra four hours on Sunday threaten that? I doubt it very much. In fact, given current trends, it might just help protect those poor beleaguered superstores from the growing threat of corner shops.

Matthew Valentine, editor