The Store Hour Opening Debate in Brussels

The Store Hour Opening Debate in Brussels
Rue Neuve in Brussels.

To shop or not to shop… that is the question or, to be strictly accurate, whether to shop longer hours and also on Sunday. Even the mere suggestion of shops being allowed to open their doors on the Sabbath is anathema to some.

But for many others, it’s a forward-thinking policy that is a “win-win situation.”

Certainly, if you listen to the Belgian public, there is a fast growing body of opinion in favour of longer opening hours.

The business community generally supports the idea as well which, given the fast rising stiff competition from online shopping and the need to maximise all avenues for economic growth, is not entirely surprising. 

According to a recent survey by retail property specialist QRF, more than half of Belgian consumers want to shop on Sundays and also to shop longer in the evenings.

The study of 1,300 Belgians showed that young people are especially in favour of longer opening hours, with 50 per cent of those surveyed saying they would like to shop later than 6pm, the time when most businesses shut. Most said 7pm would a better closing time with 25 per cent suggesting 8pm.

QRF CEO Anneleen Desmyter said it’s primarily the younger consumers who complain that shops close too early, adding, “Cities with a lot of young people and tourists stand to benefit the most from a policy of longer opening hours.”

In April 2015, the Pentagon area of Brussels City (the area inside the small ring) was recognized as a “touristic zone” as a result of an initiative of the alderman for economics affairs, Marion Lemesre (MR). 

This status gave store owners the legal right to keep their shops open 24/7 without having to comply with the previous two days off/week restriction. 

Currently, about 20,000 of the shops in Brussels Capital Region that are located within the Pentagon are allowed to open each Sunday, though this is not mandatory. The shops on Rue Neuve (Nieuwstraat), arguably the busiest shopping street in Belgium, have chosen to open only on the first Sunday of each month. An estimated 80 per cent have done so.

Until the tourist zone designation was introduced, Sunday trading was severely restricted under a ten-year old Belgian trading legislation (Sunday opening was previously only permitted six times a year).

Lemesre told The Brussels Times, “All merchants now have the right to open their business on Sundays. They are free to choose if they want to open or not.”

When asked why she supports shop opening on Sundays she said, “Firstly, business owners can improve their sales and revenues by opening one more day per week. Secondly, inhabitants and tourists have one extra shopping day during the week. The Sunday shopping is a great opportunity to discover the capital in a very different atmosphere: free of stress and traffic. To sum up, it’s a win-win situation.”

She adds, “Moreover, the goal of this initiative was to attract a new customer base to Brussels. Most European cities allow their merchants to open on Sundays. In order for Brussels to remain an attractive destination for vacations and business trips, we will definitely keep encouraging store owners to open on Sundays. 

“The right to open on Sundays enhances the capital’s attractiveness for (new) brands to settle in Brussels. It’s one of the first question that they ask when they consider our city.” 

Most shops are now choosing to open on the first Sunday, she said, adding, “Some stores open every Sunday, like the ones around the Grand Place, in Sablon and the Marolles. Others, like the chain stores in Rue Neuve, have decided to open only on the first Sunday of the month. Most commercial districts follow their lead: Dansaert, Saint-Jacques, Anspach Gallery, Adolph Max Blv and Avenue Louise.”

Support is available to the shops that choose to open on Sundays via the campaign, “I shop on first Sundays.” 

Lemesre said, “Since last February, we’ve amplified our communication during every first Sunday of the month. Street animations, radio spots, social media coverage and even contests have been organized to attract customers into the cool Sunday shopping atmosphere.”

She goes on, “Each first Sunday of the month was themed. For example, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, we organized a giant speed dating event last February. In June, a special ‘fan day’ took place in the city centre in honour of the Red Devils qualification in the UEFA Euro Championship 2016. All these actions were a great success. According to shop owners, their revenues keep increasing with every Sunday.” 

The idea is quickly spreading to other areas of the city.

Earlier this year, part of Ixelles, including Avenue Louise – easily the swishest shopping street in Brussels – and Toison d’Or, where the landmark Apple store is located, was also designated a tourist zone for the first time.

Ixelles mayor Dominique Dufourny welcomed the news as an “important recognition” saying the move is a potential job spinner and will benefit tourists who, in the past, have complained about having nowhere to shop in the evenings and on Sundays.

At least one other Brussels commune, St Gilles, has also applied for tourist zone recognition in the hope that, if approved, shops there will be able to open on Sundays.

The initiative is being replicated in other Belgian cities including Gent, which plans to extend trading hours until 8pm, albeit just on Thursdays.

Back in 2014, Antwerp beat both Gent and Brussels to the gun by ruling that every first Sunday of the month would be a “Shopping Sunday.”

So, why does Sunday trading matter so much?

Well, Antwerp’s experience offers a clue.

When Belgian’s 2nd city allowed Sunday trading for the first time, on Sunday 7 September 2014, shops reported taking as much in just two hours as they did in an entire trading day during the week.

It is argued by Lemesre and others that shopping hour liberalisation is essential if Brussels is to compete with other international centres such as London and combat the threat posed by ever-growing out-of-town retail complexes, including the mega site currently being developed near the Atomium.

The Flemish liberal party Open Vld also favours more flexible opening hours. 

Mathieu Nuytens, from Vld, told The Brussels Times, “We value the free choice for traders regarding the opening hours of their business. Proposals have been submitted in the past, and in our programme we have pledged to push for longer closing time in the evenings.”

Nuytens added, “We want to give traders more freedom to better respond to consumer demand and to be stronger in the competition with e-commerce. Of course, we do not oblige dealers to stay open until 10pm. We just want to give them a chance to do so, if they want to.”

Not everyone agrees that we should be allowed to shop 'til we drop. 

When shops in Brussels were given the green light to open on Sunday for the first time, scores of protestors demonstrated and action by some trade unions meant that the doors of several shops, including the major clothing chains Zara and H&M on Rue Neuve, remained firmly closed.

The unions say they have several problems with the idea, including a fear that the bonuses shop employees receive for working on the Sabbath could be threatened as a result of shops being allowed to open more often on that day.

A source at the Christian trade union, ACV, said, “What should not be overlooked in this debate is that working on a Sunday has an impact on workers’ home lives. This does not suit everyone.”

There are also concerns, according to ACV, that Sunday trading creates a lot more traffic, congestion and noise (on what is supposed to be a day of rest) for people living in affected areas.

Currently, Brussels is lagging behind other European cities when it comes to opening times.

While Sunday trading rules vary considerably across Europe, the vast majority of countries allow shops to open freely while only a few others, including Belgium, still have tight restrictions in place.

With the exception of Germany and Norway, Sunday shopping is possible in most countries in Europe, even in France which, like Belgium, had previously been particularly resistant to the idea.

However, in 2015 - 20 years after Britain - even the French finally loosened their Sunday trading laws. 

Anton Van Assche, coordinator of the small business association, Unizo, which represents about 1,000 independent entrepreneurs in Brussels and 80,000 across Belgium, said that Sunday trading is growing “slowly but surely” in Brussels.

Unizo says that Sunday shopping, albeit currently limited, attracts “many customers” and efforts to promote the city as a shopping destination are “paying off.”

Van Assche told The Brussels Times, “There’s a lot of interest in the idea in Brussels but, equally, you have to consider the work-life balance, which is very important.

“If this is going to take off, two conditions have to be met. First, there has to be some sort of complimentary marketing/promotional strategy for the whole city, and second, the economic and financial gain from opening on Sundays and/or for longer in the evenings has to be proven. We believe it can only be justified if there is real gain. 

“Not every merchant is convinced that opening times reform will inevitably generate more sales or attract more business. They want real evidence of a benefit.”

Whatever the pros and cons of the issue, the city authorities are trying to promote the idea with, for example, “Brussels Sunday Shopping”, a newly launched, free practical guide for shops in Brussels that open on Sundays. The guide lists stores as well as restaurants, markets, museums and monuments by district.

Published in three languages (French, Dutch and English), the focus is on those districts where shops (plus markets and tourist attractions) open on Sundays. The guide is produced by Atrium, the regional agency for commercial activities, in cooperation with the City of Brussels.

It looks like a new dawn is being ushered in by the desire to boost retail growth by giving high-spending visitors and locals something to do with their money on the Lord’s Day.

The inviolability of Sunday is a matter of choice, of course and the message seems to be: You don’t want to shop on Sundays? Don’t shop. 

By Martin Banks

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