Proposals to devolve powers to set Sunday trading rules could allow local authorities to give greater flexibility to high street retailers but employers wishing to take advantage would need to weigh up potential challenges from employees to working longer hours.

The proposals are part of the Government's initiative to support local high streets and give local areas greater control of their local economy, with the hope of improving the well-being of local citizens. The move continues the trend to devolve powers and as in other areas, authorities across the North of England are well placed to take advantage. Under the plans, priority could be given to high street shops who have struggled to compete with out-of-town shopping centres and online retailers. They could be granted the right to stay open longer on a Sunday while trading restrictions for out-of-town shopping centres may be left in place.

If these proposed changes come to fruition, high street retailers will likely need greater flexibility from their employees if they want to take advantage of any relaxation on the current restrictions to Sunday trading hours. However, there are obstacles and costs associated with this:

  • Employers cannot require their employees to work longer hours on Sundays without a contractual right to do so. Existing contracts of employment may, therefore, need to be changed to cover the longer working hours. If that can't be achieved, additional staff may need to be recruited to cover the additional hours.
  • There are no current proposals to amend the current statutory rights of employees to opt out of Sunday working. Potentially any increase in hours on a Sunday might increase the number of employees choosing to exercise that right. 
  • Retailers will need to weigh up the increased employment costs (including potentially paying premium overtime or higher Sunday working payments to encourage employees to work on a Sunday) against the prospect of greater footfall and revenue with the increased opening hours. 
  • Longer hours on a Sunday may make it more difficult for those employees who rely on public transport to get to work, which is usually scaled down on a Sunday, and so employers will need to consider the impact this may have on employees.
  • Even if retailers can require or persuade their employees to work longer hours, they will need to consider the effect this has on staff morale and retention which in the longer term brings its own costs.
  • Another key issue for retailers will be the potential for religious discrimination complaints from those employees who still see Sundays as a day of worship. They could object to working at all or at least working longer hours on Sundays. Retailers will therefore need to ensure they can balance these interests against their business needs if they are to extend their opening hours on Sundays.

There are potential advantages for retailers from these proposals, which it is hoped may help to reverse the trend towards out-of-town and online retailers, with high street retailers seeing a resurgence in footfall. However, retailers will need to think carefully about how they arrange their workforce to cover any increased hours on a Sunday and how to address the potential issues which may arise in doing so.