Apr 19, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Sunday Shopping Returns to Hungary

Last week, the Hungarian Parliament withdrew the law on the mandatory, Sunday closures for retail shops. The regulation, which provided a guarantee to workers in the retail sector that they would have a day off on Sunday, had been in effect since March 15, 2015. Now Hungary’s retail sector is again open for business on Sundays.

This seemingly trivial issue speaks volumes about the governing party’s key to success. That is, if the people don’t like your decisions, be prepared to change.

Let’s recap the issue: In 2014, when the governing parties, on the initiation of the Christian Democrats, accepted the law on mandatory Sunday shop closures, the aim was to guarantee retail-sector workers a day off, a day that families could count on being free, no matter what. In exchange, it asked for solidarity from Hungary’s consumers as they adapted to the inconveniences that came with the decision.

Sunday closures are not unusual. A study from EuroCommerce showed that many European countries have instituted similar laws. Retail shops in Austria, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, France and Turkey remain closed, while Finland, Iceland and Spain also limited Sunday opening hours.

Nor are shop closures a particularly conservative idea. Usually, unions and left-leaning political parties demand either less hours or guaranteed, regular days off, while groups on the right tend to favor a less regulated retail sector.

With the introduction of the measure, in accordance with the government’s pro-family policies and the Prime Minister’s “one step ahead for everyone” slogan, the government expected criticism, both economic and social. But we anticipated that, despite the critics, the mandatory Sunday closure would neither generate significant lay-offs nor decrease the sector’s performance. From society, we expected that Hungarian consumers would adjust their shopping patterns and eventually would support retail shop workers.

As shops closed down on Sundays, however, the government’s eyes and ears remained open and we continuously monitored the issue. It turned out we were right about the economic aspects: the sector quickly adapted to the changes. Data showed that employment increased by 1.8 percent and trade volume by 5.6 percent in 2015, effectively demolishing critics who predicted negative trends in employment and trade performance in the sector. All retail chains reported that they did not lay off a single employee because of Sunday closures.

Nonetheless, Hungary’s consumers saw it as an inconvenience. Polls clearly showed that as time passed, an increasing number expressed dislike for the measure. This data suggested that if a referendum were to be held on the Sunday closure, it most likely would have been voted down. So, instead of wasting time and resources on a referendum, the government decided to let the idea go, at least until public opinion changes.

Although Sunday closures did not damage the retail sector and retail-sector workers enjoyed a guaranteed free Sunday, the decision remained largely unpopular. Public opinion suggested that the government would be smart to revoke the regulation. Closing the retail sector on Sundays is not the first decision that Hungarian voters disagreed with, nor will it be the last. The government keeps its ears open to the voters. After all, that’s been a key to this government’s success.