Sunday shopping crackdown

In exchange for the parliamentary support of the small orthodox Christian parties, the minority government agrees to restrict Sunday opening hours for shops. As the senate reviews the bill, shop keepers tell PHILIP HOFMAN about the impact on their businesses.

Economic Affairs Minister Maxime Verhagen (CDA) is aiming to close a loophole in the law governing the opening hours of Dutch shops. Shops can legally open their doors 12 Sundays a year, but there is a way around this restriction. Local authorities can claim official status as a place of tourism for their municipality, allowing shopkeepers to welcome customers every Sunday. Many municipalities across Holland have used the pretence of tourism activity to allow Sunday shopping year-round. However, if Verhagen’s bill is passed by the senate, those local authorities will be forced to turn back the clock. They will have to re-take the decision to mark their town or city a place of tourism. And this time, they have to prove that the tourism is substantial and autonomous.
That may not be so easy for a place like Almere, which is hardly a tourist magnet. Its shops cater to a largely local clientele, yet are allowed to open every Sunday because Almere city hall has played the tourism card.
Christian parties the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP) and Christen Unie (CU) want to restore Sunday as a day of rest, in keeping with the teachings of the Bible. The holy book says God created Earth in six days and rested on the seventh day, a holy day for Christians.

Shopping attraction
Musie El Messaoudi, co-owner of Faridha's Nail Studio in Citymall Almere, is not happy about the prospect of having to keep his doors shut on most Sundays. “It would be very regrettable. Not good for our business or our city," he says. "Almere is growing, but we really need Sunday shopping to attract people and continue that.” He admits that most clients visit his nail studio on Thursdays and Saturdays. Sundays run a close third, but have their benefits too. “A lot of people pass our shop on Sunday and see us,” says Mr El Massaoudi. “That’s good for getting our name better known and driving customers to us on other days of the week.” Fellow entrepreneur Adrie ten Hove from gift shop Cadeau Chateau, makes only limited use of the unrestricted shopping regime in Almere, opening about fifteen Sundays a year. “We do not benefit enough from being open every Sunday, because we are situated on the outskirts of the city centre and have little traffic from passing shoppers,” he says. “But I prefer making the choice to open or not myself.” In December, the most important month for gift shops, Mr Ten Hove does open his shop every Sunday, but that practice may now be in jeopardy. “If the bill goes ahead, I fear that is no longer possible.” The Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG) have joined shop keepers and their lobby organisations, such as Detailhandel Nederland (Retail Netherlands) and MKB Nederland (Association of Medium and Small sized Businesses), in their opposition to the government initiative. Municipalities want to remain in charge of what they see as a distinctly local issue.

Horse trading
The proposal to curb Sunday shopping was first tabled by the previous government, as the outcome of political horse trading between the Pvda, CDA and the CU. When the two mainstream parties were piecing together the fourth Balkenende cabinet, they needed the small Christian party to reach the required majority in parliament. There was not much enthusiasm, however, within Pvda and CDA to usher in the legislation during the economic crisis, as it would have cost jobs. The liberals strongly opposed the idea of “patronising” Sunday shopping restrictions, as VVD party leader Mark Rutte then called it. Early this year, he visited city centres on Sundays aboard a campaign bus, handing out leaflets with the slogan “Shopping is also Sunday rest.” The Balkenende government fell before the bill became law and the new VVD/CDA administration had been expected to bin the idea for good. But, the frail Rutte-led minority cabinet needs the parliamentary support of the SGP. Regardless, VVD senators of all people, have said they may not support the bill. They have their own responsibility as senators they argue; party discipline comes second. If the bill does not make it past the senate, and VVD senators have played a part in its demise, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has some painful explaining to do to the SGP.