Licensing laws, Sunday trading and downright silliness

Sometimes it takes the young to point out the downright silliness that we meekly go along with every day.

Like the time when I was in Marks and Spencer and tried to explain to my son that we couldn’t go to a particular till because I had a bottle of wine in my basket and that counter was ‘No alcohol’. But, I told him, we could buy the wine at the next till.

He looked at me and said: ‘Daddy, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’

And, of course, he was right. I could have taken the time to explain that due to an anachronistic law retail premises which sell drink still have to have specific areas where alcohol cannot be purchased, but what would have been the point? My five-year-old had spotted in an instant the goofiness of being able to buy a bottle of wine at till number 2 but not till number 1.

My local corner shop has found an interesting way to get around this conundrum. They have two tills which sell alcohol and one which does not. But in the six years I have lived at my current address I have never once seen the No alcohol till opened. So, in essence, they have set up a phantom till to get round the legislation.

Another similar issue arose this morning. Mummy and I had taken our boy to Dobbies Garden Centre in Lisburn for breakfast. We arrived shortly after 10am. After munching on sausages and toast my boy excitedly asked if he could look at the toys and the Christmas displays.

Soon he had found a little toy he liked and asked me to buy it for him. He’s been very well behaved recently and I wanted to reward him, but there was a problem.

I scratched my head sheepishly as I explained to him.

‘Sorry buddy, but the shop doesn’t open for another two and a half hours.’

He gave me a long stare, one which seemed to say: ‘Daddy, if you’re going to make up a fib to get out of buying me a toy, at least come up with something better than that.’

It is easy to understand his supposed reasoning. After all, we were inside the shop which was fully lit, music was playing and all the displays were active. We had already eaten in the restaurant and there were a few other shoppers strolling up and down the aisles. There were even staff members in the store, including a woman standing behind one of the till counters (presumably to ensure that none of us merely filled a trolley and walked out of the store without paying).

But despite all of the visible signs pointing in one logical direction, the truth, I had to tell my son, ran contrary to it. We couldn’t buy anything until 1pm because of restricted Sunday opening hours. Yes, we could have breakfast in Dobbies, but that was different.

We were caught in a strange no man’s land, like ghosts on a shipwreck. Able to shop for hours but not able to buy.

For more of this silliness let’s travel back to Marks and Spencer. The store closest to my house is probably one of the busiest in the country. On a Sunday, as I’ve already explained, they can’t sell any goods until 1pm. But there are large numbers of impatient shoppers who don’t like to wait. To get round this the store simply opens its doors earlier. The customers swarm in and begin to fill their baskets and trollies.

At about 12:45pm the queues begin to form at the checkouts. The staff take up their positions about five minutes before the hour. As the minutes tick off towards 1pm the lines can swell to consist of several dozen people who all simply want to be able to buy their shopping and go home. The retail assistants are also keen to get started as they know the longer they have to wait, the further the queue stretches.

But wait they all must. Then, at exactly the stroke of 1pm, the computer unlocks the tills and the customers rush towards the desk and frantic buying begins.

I always try to see both sides in any argument but, in all of the practical examples I have listed here, it is hard to see who benefits from the situations which have been allowed to develop.

The current rules for Sunday trading came into force in Northern Ireland in 1997. They state that shops with a floor area of up to 280 square metres can choose their own Sunday opening hours. Shops with a larger floor area (eg Dobbies or Marks and Spencer) can only trade between 1pm and 6pm on a Sunday.

I’m not sure what the origin for this 280 square metre figure is. I’ve checked The Bible but can find no mention or reference to it there.

What this all means, in real terms, is that Tesco can open its Express stores between 6am and midnight on a Sunday but its larger Extra stores only between 1pm and 6pm. Again, it’s difficult not to pose the question, who does this benefit?

There are, of course, those who see merit in restricted Sunday opening. Those who believe in keeping the day sacred due to spiritual belief or those who simply think an agreed day of rest is a good idea. Some also argue of the disruption to family life of having to work on a Sunday.

Some smaller and independent traders also make the case that restricted Sunday opening for larger outlets gives their stores a chance to compete with the retail giants.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever walked around Belfast city centre on a Sunday morning may conclude that it’s a strange and unnerving experience, strolling past endless shopfronts with their shutters down.

I used to be employed in the city centre and part of my job determined that I work on Sundays. Often I would go for a walk along the streets before I headed to the office.

On a couple of occasions I remember encountering confused tourists and having to tell them there was simply nothing open yet. They had the same look of bewilderment that I saw on my son’s face when I tried to explain to him why I could buy him breakfast in Dobbies, but not a toy.


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