Shop till you drop

We should be mindful of the social consequences of a free-for-all in all sectors. There is more at stake to the issue than merely meeting the demands of shop owner

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mikiel Galea

Should people be free to shop until they drop? Or should shopping hours continue to be restricted at law, as they are at present?

The question itself – asked in a recent survey by GRTU, the representatives of retailers and traders – shows how much Malta has changed in recent years. Some 20 years ago, the same GRTU was at the forefront of a drive to permit Sunday shopping of any kind at all. With few exceptions – notably essential services, and some exceptions such as plant shops and bakeries – it was impossible to get a licence to trade on Sundays.

Today, Sunday shopping is very much a reality, albeit under restricted conditions.

Then as now, there are weighty considerations on either side of the debate. The GRTU survey shows that 62% of the 500 shop owners interviewed disagree with restrictions on opening hours throughout the week, claiming among other things that today’s consumers need to be able to shop at different times of the day.

A smaller majority (52%) agrees that shopping hours on Sundays should not be restricted.

Lifting restrictions on shop opening hours will clearly benefit people who are at work during normal shopping hours. In this sense a relaxation of opening times will complement other policies like the provision of free child care which are meant to help families in which both partners work.

But while this is an important consideration to be made by government which is currently revising laws regulating shop-opening hours, other factors should also be considered.

The survey shows that 27% who favor restrictions claimed that many businesses are family-run and do not have the resources to open all hours. They also remarked that turnover will not increase, while expenses will mount for the shop owner. A free-for-all model in this scenario would lead to unfair competition. Clearly a complete relaxation of opening hours will benefit established chains which have the economy of scales to employ more people.

Moreover, the survey pays attention to the demands of shop owners while not referring to employees who work in these shops. Yet their views are relevant to the issue. Lifting restrictions on opening hours may create more opportunities for part-time work for categories like students. But it could also result in greater pressure on existing workers to work longer hours, especially in face of competition from other workers who are ready to accept longer hours. It is difficult for these workers to resist the demands of employers. This will probably make retail work even more unattractive for people with families and result in their replacement by categories like students and immigrants.

On the other hand, in many European cities one also finds plenty of small, family-owned corner convenience stores (many of which owned by migrants) which open for long hours. This suggests that a mere change in restrictions is not enough to cater for the demand for more flexible shopping. A culture change among employees may be necessary also.

One may well argue that the solution to the problem of precarious conditions is to abide by the working time directive, and ensure a decent minimum wage for workers. This would guarantee the same conditions of work without having to resort to imposing restrictions. There are also cultural arguments which cannot lightly be ignored. A consequence of lifting restrictions on Sunday shopping is that of transforming Sunday in to just another normal weekday.

While some would invoke religious arguments against this, there are plenty of secular reasons to keep Sunday a collective day of rest. Unrestricted Sunday shopping may result in the further commercialisation of leisure time, with people going to the shopping mall instead of to the countryside or attending cultural activities like the various events organised by local councils (examples would include Mgarr’s Festa tal-Frawli, etc). Perhaps ideas like making museums free on certain Sundays make more sense from a social perspective than encouraging more people to go to the mall.

Moreover, Sundays are still respected as a special day in most European cities. In Berlin, which has the most liberal opening times in Germany, all shops can theoretically offer their goods round the clock from Monday to Saturday; but with few exceptions (including airports and railway stations), and over the Christmas period, all shops are closed on Sundays.

On the flipside, one may well argue that in a free society, people should also have the freedom to shop till they drop... and that the market will in any case regulate itself in the absence of State-imposed restrictions. These arguments make sense from an economically liberal perspective, but do little to guarantee social justice. Convenience for the consumer is undeniably a valid goal, but not when achieved at the cost of the exploitation of vulnerable sectors.

In view of all these factors it is clear that in a modern society it makes sense to extend shop opening hours at least during some days of the week, and to provide essential services on Sunday. But we should be mindful of the social consequences of a free-for-all in all sectors. There is more at stake to the issue than merely meeting the demands of shop owner

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