Sunday Shopping

Article by Terry Tozer, first published in the Western Morning News, July 8th 2006

When the big change in Sunday trading laws was made in the1990s, I was in favour of the idea. That the Church was one of the most vociferous opponents only served to convince me that establishment dinosaurs were attempting to stifle progress. I have since changed my mind.

I realise now that I did not fully appreciate the implications and failed to predict how much Sunday would change and become like any other day of the week. For many people there is now hardly any difference.

I live in Catalonia’s capital city, Barcelona, where Sunday is a shop free day. Only the local “Colmado” (convenience store) or maybe a deli will be open until 2pm. The result is a peaceful tranquil “Bario” (neighbourhood) that is normally a furious centre of activity and noise.

On Sunday mornings though, it is possible to hear only bird song, in streets where traffic and the sound of life at full volume, is the norm. Construction, usually at Hong Kong levels, is halted too. It is illegal after midday on Saturday, so the sounds of jackhammers, drills and crane alarms are silenced as well.

Cafes and restaurants are open naturally, as are petrol stations, where you may find sweets and cigarettes. The newsagent will be open until one, or maybe, two pm, as will the bakers but that is it. No big stores, supermarkets or any shop that does not form part of the backbone of social tradition.

The result is a scene similar to my memory of the UK in the 1960s. Families out walking, sitting in cafes and doing simple things together. Being Spain of course, eating together too. Sunday lunch is an institution and is taken as a family in either the matriarch’s house or a restaurant. Sundays is a really busy day in the food industry. So much so, that in Madrid, 79% of Madrilenos eat in restaurants according to the Fondacion Erosky.

One of the most common Sunday sights will be young married couples pushing buggies. Simply walking or playing with their children in the park or on the beach. The alternative retail recreation is simply not available and this all helps to create a unique mood of peace in this normally hyperactive, dynamic international city. Normally busy roads are empty.

This frustrated me when I first moved here, due to my English habits, but I soon adjusted. Not having everything on tap all the time simply doesn’t matter but it is what the British are now used to. Of course it is necessary to plan ahead a bit but that is habit, as is so much of life. Habits can be changed though and whilst there are occasions when we forget something it doesn’t really matter. We just go without it.

The Spanish would say, “Hombre, the world will still turn, the sun will still come up in the same place” and they are right. Is it really vital to be able to buy a game boy on a Sunday? Do we really need to go shopping for clothes or consumer durables or things we simply do not need, just for something to do?

The director of a large West Country shopping centre was quoted in the Western Morning News recently, saying that shopping “is the number one leisure activity”. Can that really be true? I believe it is the large retailers who want more, more, more, rather than the public.

He also said “..the anti-shopping brigade’s concerns have been shown to be totally unfounded.” I disagree completely, I remember the past and now live amongst the evidence of the alternative.

I also find it hard to believe that in a wonderful natural environment like the West Country, the population is unable to find other leisure activities. I suspect that economic issues are driving this demand for even longer Sunday opening hours. How can the British need more shopping?

West Country MP, Richard Younger-Ross, is attempting to reduce the existing opening hours and I find myself supporting the idea now. In fact, his observations mirror my experience exactly. Leaving aside the religious angle, I do firmly believe that the UK Sunday trading laws have changed British society and not for the better.

You may argue that Spanish society was shaped by the church. True, in part, but that is not the dominant force it once was and is not the main reason now, for Spanish habits. It is understandable that a secular society will not consider the argument for God as strongly as its secular beliefs, but do we really need to worship money instead?

In Britain it is already hard for many individuals to resist the pressure to work or shop on Sunday. It was once the one day that was safe from these external forces and there are many who would, in truth, prefer to have that pressure removed.

Imagine a Sunday when all you could do was have time off. When trucks were off the roads, builders resting instead of digging and your town or village silent. It is seductive once you have tried it and it is surprising what alternatives appear when you simply cannot head for the nearest mall.

The human race has survived because of our ability to adapt. In Britain we have adapted to what is now the norm. If shopping hours are longer, we will adapt to that too. Soon, there truly will be no difference between Sunday and Monday, except in name, but if we can adapt one way we can adapt the other too. Sadly though, I fear that Mr Younger-Ross faces the forces of big business and consumerism as well as habit and he will have a tough fight on his hands.

I know some will say that Sunday is the only day they have free to shop but that is true of many people here as well. Catalonia is the economic engine of Spain and many families have working mothers. They seem to manage well enough and I have never heard a complaint about opening hours. Shops stay open later during the week, of course, and perhaps that could be an alternative for Britain? Keep the same number of hours but remove them from Sunday, after all, one hour per day extra is almost a whole day’s shopping.

I am sure that expectation has its part to play as well. Materialism is not the main driver here. The number one priority is the family, nothing is more important. That is not to say the British do not care about family, of course they do but individualism rules and in my view, more shopping simply promotes shallow values.

How about trying some Spanish living for a while? You could experiment and lend Mr Younger-Ross some support at the same time. Try banning shopping on a Sunday for a month and see what it feels like. You may discover more pluses than minuses. You will not be able to switch off Britain Plc of course but you can simulate it by sitting somewhere peaceful and see how it feels.

I would never wish to revert to US style consumerism for its own sake and I cherish Spanish Sundays now that I have them. The Spanish know how to live with a capital L and the British have adopted many Spanish ways already.

We move there, holiday there, eat more and more of their food and drink their wonderful wine and few UK towns are without a tapas bar. I believe we could lead a fuller, more rewarding life if we tried their Sundays too.