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Is restricted trading due for an overhaul?

This Easter weekend, depending on their location and size, some Australian retailers will be selling chocolate eggs and hot cross buns until the last possible moment on Saturday or Sunday. Others will be forced to open late and close early, or will not be able to open at all.

Meanwhile, on Easter Monday, some retailers will be catering to customers who are taking advantage of the public holiday to fit in a few hours of clothes shopping, while others will miss out on sales entirely.

That same confusion and inconsistency extends to other public holidays throughout the year, including Anzac Day, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and even Labour Day and the Queen’s Birthday, depending, again, on the retailer’s location and size and type of business.

At a time when most retailers are already struggling to combat low consumer sentiment, a poor housing market and increased competition from online players at home and abroad, the patchwork of rules and regulations around holiday trading is just one more thing to worry about, claim industry bodies.

“Retailers would like to see a uniform view on public holiday trading across the country,” says Dominique Lamb, CEO at the National Retail Association (NRA). “It does make it very complicated if you’re a national brand.”

Both the NRA and the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) support the deregulation of trading-hour restrictions, which they believe will increase competition among retailers, leading to lower prices and higher employment, and enable them to better meet the needs of today’s consumers.

This support extends for the most part to public holidays. ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman wants to see restricted trading limited to two-and-a-half days a year: Good Friday, Christmas Day and a partial day on Anzac Day. While that’s the case in some parts of the country, like Victoria, other states and territories still restrict trading on additional holidays, such as Easter Sunday and Monday.

Zimmerman believes such laws are long overdue for an update.

“When I was a young kid and started working in the retail industry, we used to close on Saturdays at 12pm and Sundays,” he says. “That’s unthinkable now.”

The reason restrictions on weekend trading were lifted is the same reason restrictions on most holiday trading should be lifted, he says: changing consumer behaviour.

“Consumers are looking to be able to shop when they want to shop, rather than when retailers are open,” he says. “Things like Saturday and Sunday [trading hours] have almost become the norm.”

Zimmerman also points out that bricks-and-mortar retailers are at a disadvantage, since consumers can shop online, no matter what day it is.

“Retailers have got to be competitive in that space,” he says.

However, when it comes down to it, neither Zimmerman nor Lamb see a standard approach to holiday trading on the horizon.

“Things like retail tenancy and trading hours are state-based [decisions],” Zimmerman says. “Will there ever be an agreement that all states are the same? Probably not.”

Lamb is slightly more optimistic, but still doesn’t think it is likely to happen for some time.

Some progress being made

That’s not to say there has not been some incremental progress. Last year, NSW lifted restrictions on Boxing Day trade in regional areas, following a successful two-year trial. Previously, trading was only permitted in tourist areas, such as the CBD and Bondi. And this year for the first time, South Australia is permitting retailers in suburban Adelaide to trade on Easter Monday.

Generally considered to be one of the more restrictive states in the country, South Australia also granted an exemption for Boxing Day trading in 2018, which it says drew more than 130,000 shoppers to stores and didn’t result in a single complaint that any employees had been forced to work.

Both South Australia and New South Wales included provisions in their decisions to lift trading restrictions that no shop may be forced to open – by a shopping centre or landlord, for instance – and no employee may be forced to work by their employer on those public holidays.

This highlights the key political issues at stake in the debate. On one side there are business leaders emphasising the boost they give to the local economy by staying open, and on the other side, there are unions defending workers’ rights to spend such days at home with their families, as other Australians do.

“This is a topic that is hotly debated during elections,” Lamb points out.

But at what cost?

One key point may be getting lost in all of this. Some retailers choose not to open on public holidays, even when trading restrictions are lifted, because they can’t afford to pay their workers the required penalty rates.

“We do not open on Boxing Day because we are in urban strip shopping areas,” says Chris Tourgelis, CEO of Opus Design, an independent gift and homewares retailer in Sydney.

“The Boxing Day sales are most prominent in shopping centres and the return on investment is not there for us.”

According to Tourgelis, Opus Design trades on some public holidays, but the demand is so unpredictable and the cost of labour is so high, that he’s unsure whether it’s really worth it.

“It is so expensive to staff…that we have to reduce the opening hours on the day and also heavily reduce staffing. Even with these measures in place, it is highly debatable as to whether it is worth opening at all, given the labour costs involved,” he says.

Tourgelis believes staff should be paid a “much higher rate” than usual to work on public holidays, but he says this needs to be balanced out with what businesses can afford.

“The truth is that if businesses do not open during these times, it will have a detrimental effect on the community and the economy in general.”

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