The observation that a trading hours extension would not be ‘a magic answer to economic regeneration’ deserves to be heeded
David Ricardo’s theory of equivalence proposes that there is no difference in the long run between raising money by taxes or raising it by bonds: the choice is between taxing now and taxing later. The great Ricardo himself was never persuaded that it stood up to close scrutiny, for it relies on citizens behaving in an utterly rational manner. Translate it to the impact of small changes in trading hours, though, and it may stand up. Allowing even the largest stores to open for six hours on a Sunday may have increased the amount of time consumers spend in the aisles, but it doesn’t necessarily grow the total they spend on a week’s groceries.
The political push for perpetuating the longer Sunday shopping hours introduced for the Olympics and Paralympics is unlikely to dwell on Ricardian equivalence. It’s more likely that enthusiasts will point to John Lewis’s latest trading figures, covering the second week of the Olympics and showing sales soaring 15% above the same period last year, with the biggest boost to sportswear, up 177%. That’s undoubtedly great news for John Lewis stores, and for the employees who share in their profits. But it smacks of a temporary lift. As boss of Sainsbury’s, Justin King would surely be well placed to capitalise on any extension of trading hours, so his observation yesterday that it would not be “a magic answer to economic regeneration” deserves to be heeded.
Deregulating Sunday shopping always appears to be low-hanging fruit for Thatcherites, and George Osborne has been toying with it since he moved to No 11. The idea was trailed before the 2011 budget, dropped in the face of opposition from the Tory party’s churchgoing tendency (who defeated Margaret Thatcher on the same issue in 1986), then revived in this year’s already legendary festival of bad ideas. It was sketchily disguised as a measure to show the world that London – already recognised as a top shopping destination – was, as the prime minister likes to put it, open all hours. It was, doubters were assured, just for the duration of the Games. Yet before the Spice Girls had driven into the Olympic Stadium last Sunday night, Eric Pickles, secretary for communities and local government, was talking up the idea of keeping the new hours.
With a brand new Westfield shopping mall on the doorstep and a business summit in the margins of the opening ceremony, the Olympics always threatened to be as much about commerce as sporting endeavour. But to use it as an excuse to make Sunday just like every other day of the week is completely wrong: wrong economically and wrong on the message it would send. Neither trying to boost consumerism nor making people work longer hours is in any way a fitting legacy for the London 2012 Olympic Games.