Italians, backed by the Catholic Church, aim to stop Sunday shopping

A law that deregulates store hours in Italy, allowing businesses to operate on Sundays in order to stimulate economic growth, has fueled opposition since its inception a year ago.

Gregorio Borgia/AP
People stroll in Rome's Via Condotti luxury shopping street, Dec. 17. A controversial new law is being considered in Italy, which could allow businesses to operate on Sundays in an effort to stimulate economic growth.

Italians are fighting a government lift of regulations on business operation hours, insisting that the move will eventually hurt the small shops and values that have long been the foundation of the Italian business community. 

The deregulation, put into effect January 2012, removes restrictions on business operating hours, including Sundays and holidays. It is intended to stimulate competition in what has traditionally been a highly regulated market. However, it has been vehemently criticized by many shop owners, and the campaign against it has received a boost from the powerful Catholic Church. 

Campaign organizers argue that working on Sunday has forced employees to sacrifice "important values" and benefited big companies at the expense of small businesses.

Headed by Confesercenti, a leading retailers’ business association, and backed by the powerful Italian Bishops Conference, the campaign began at the end of November. Its organizers are hoping to collect the 50,000 signatures required to submit a bill to Parliament by April. The bill would give regions – rather than the national Parliament – the power to regulate Sunday openings. The goal of the bill isn’t to outlaw opening on Sundays but to eliminate “the excesses” brought by deregulation, say organizers.

If it gets the signatures, the bill would most likely be examined after the February election.

“People say: ‘It’s nice to have shops open on Sunday.’ But I don’t make extra sales on Sunday,” says Aldina Orlandini, who has run a clothing shop in a busy downtown street in Reggio Emilia, an affluent town near Bologna, since 1978.

Ms. Orlandini says deregulation hasn't hurt her business, since her store can count on a steady pool of customers. Still, she says, the measure is just wrong.

“People have the right to rest one day per week. Am I not a human being? Don’t I have a family?” Orlandini says. “The law should mandate a day off.”

But for Mauro Bussoni, the vice director of Confesercenti and the coordinator of the “Free Sunday” campaign, the problem is more systemic. “This measure favors certain retailers,” he says.

Deregulation hasn’t increased sales, and it has only increased costs for small businesses, since putting together shifts during the holidays is easier for big stores, which are more able to pay the extra costs, including overtime, Mr. Bussoni argues.

Bussoni says he fears that without regulation of the days and hours stores can operate, a competition will emerge in which only the fittest survive at the expense of mom-and-pop operations, which are already being hit hard by the recession. Istat, Italy’s statistics bureau, recently reported that retail sales for October 2012 were 3.8 percent lower than in October 2011. The process, he says, would change the face of Italian cities, threatening the quality of life of people, such as senior citizens, who rely on neighborhood stores.

The campaign’s organizers argue it’s more than a matter of competing business models, but defending the right of workers and shop owners to spend time with their families.

“On Sunday, leave us alone,” says Mina Giannandrea, a shop owner and the president of FEDERstrade, a Rome retailers’ association that’s also participating in the campaign. “People who shop on Sunday are selfish; they don’t think about those who have to work on Sunday,” Ms. Giannandrea says.

The importance of family time is the message that has perhaps resonated the most with the Catholic Church, which has thrown its support behind the campaign.

“Freedom without truth, without a higher end is mere caprice,” said Archbishop Giancarlo Bregantini, stressing the importance of a day of rest as mandated by the Bible in an interview with Vatican Radio.

Supporters of deregulation emphasize the freedom it gives consumers – a different notion of freedom than that embraced by the Confesercenti campaign. Deregulation has given customers the ability to make purchases whenever it suits them, and stores should take advantage of this during the economic downturn, says Giovanni Cobolli Gigli, the president of Federdistribuzione, an association of Italian retail chains.

“It’s not a matter of staying open 24/7, as some have self-interestedly suggested,” Mr. Cobolli Gigli says, adding that in many cases Sunday shifts are covered by workers who volunteer to get overtime, and that the increased store hours could eventually create a demand for new, part-time weekend jobs.

To think that small shops must stay open as much as chains at all costs is a mistake, says Serena Sileoni, a fellow at the pro-market think tank Istituto Bruno Leoni. Deregulation could be an opportunity for shop owners to design a schedule based on their customers’ needs and to find a profitable niche. This could ultimately lead to changes in the way Italian cities look, she argues. 

“Cities are already different from how they used to be,” Ms. Sileoni says.

Andrea Moro, a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, says markets are always working to respond to innovation, which often comes hand-in-hand with the destruction of old ideas or traditions.

While Mr. Moro is sympathetic to the challenges faced by retail workers, he says he can think of only one path for them: “In the modern economic structure, workers must reinvent themselves, no one excluded. Thankfully, these people still have jobs and they must adapt to the new working conditions,” he says.

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