In conversation with Tim Leunig… Sunday opening

Welcome to another experiment with an ‘in discussion’ style blog post, which today features myself and the CentreForum’s Tim Leunig looking at Sunday opening.

Mark: In the recent debate about Sunday opening hours, many people were doubtful that longer opening hours would boost the economy, making comments such as “Would you really buy more things if all the shops were open on Sunday? Or would you buy the same amount of total stuff and just not buy it on one of the other days of the week?”

There are other angles to the debate too, but specifically on the economic impact, what’s your view? Would longer opening hours have an impact on the total amount of consumer spending that happens? Would there be an impact of people spending money more quickly and so its circulation around the economy speeding up?

Tim: Increasing opening hours will not increase spending. Instead, it will spread spending out over a longer period each week. That means that stores can be a little smaller, as fewer people will be in them at any time. That in turn lowers costs a fraction, and makes us all slightly better off.

Mark: That sounds like in practice it would make no difference as the size of shops is not very flexible on the small-scale. Shop units are, in the short and medium term, fairly rigid in size and hard to change. However, if shopping was spread out it would reduce the load on transport system, so is the real issue here not the impact on spending but on transport?

Tim: The biggest gains from almost everything are long term! Shops are more flexible than you think. If a shop needs less space for one item, it can increase the range of items sold, even if it can’t change the size of the shop.

Sundays are typically less busy on the roads, so congestion would fall slightly if more people shop on a Sunday, and fewer on other days, but the effect would be small.

Mark: So from an economic or public services perspective, Sunday opening is not much of a deal one way or the other? In other words, don’t ask an economist for what the policy should be but instead decide on other grounds?

Tim: In the long run there will be small but significant gains, because we can use land and equipment more efficiently.

My support for Sunday opening stems from my personal liberalism. Why should the state ban people from shopping at particular times of the week? Isn’t it odd that the law allows Tesco to deliver my groceries on a Sunday evening, but bans me from picking them up from the store myself?

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