Large retailers seek extension of shop opening hours

In November 2002, Austria's association of large retailers and chain stores called for an extension of shop opening hours from the current legal maximum of 66 hours per week to 78 hours. However, the large retailers' demands seem unlikely to be met, given opposition from political parties, the social partners and even the majority of small and medium-sized retailers.

At a press conference held on 13 November 2002, the association of Austrian large retailers and chain stores (Handelsverband, HV), a lobbying organisation which does not engage in collective bargaining, called for an extension of shop opening hours from Monday to Saturday, from the current legal maximum of 66 hours per week to 78 hours. Arguing that all candidate countries for European Union membership have far more liberal shop opening legislation than Austria, HV also proposes allowing shops to open on Sunday. Otherwise, there will be a substantial shift of Austrian purchasing to the new EU Member States, claims HV, which in particular represents large clothing and food retailers. HV's call came only a few days before a general election, and was addressed to the future government.

However, in the short term, HV's proposals seem unlikely to be realised, given that the efforts of Martin Bartenstein, the minister of economic and labour affairs, to launch a liberalisation initiative failed in 2001. Mr Bartenstein, of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), proposed that opening hours should be extended to 72 hours per week and that companies should also be able to open their shops during night hours (AT0101239N). On grounds of employee protection, this reform was opposed not only by the trade unions, but also by the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) (AT0107221N), the ÖVP’s partner in the outgoing coalition government. The proposal thus failed. The liberalisation of Sunday opening hours, as claimed by the large retailers, was not even considered by Mr Bartenstein.

It appears that most small and medium-sized retail companies oppose a further liberalisation and extension of opening hours and working time. According to a survey conducted among retailers in Lower Austria by the regional affiliate of the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreichs, WKÖ) in 1998, the vast majority of small and medium-sized retailers opposed the 1997 amendment of the Shop Opening Hours Act (Öffnungszeitengesetz) which had modestly extended opening hours by entitling companies to open their shops for 66 hours per week, between 06.00 and 19.30 on weekdays and between 06.00 and 17.00 on Saturdays (AT9908162F). The majority of smaller retailers could not use this increased opening time, because of additional costs due to the obligation to pay overtime premia to employees, as laid down in the relevant collective agreements. Several studies have found that the liberalisation and extension of opening hours has not increased the total volume of turnover in retail, but has caused a shift in turnover from smaller to larger companies, in particular in favour of the self-service stores with large selling areas and relatively few personnel. This is why only large retailers are now calling for a further expansion of opening hours.

The trade unions have always claimed that a further liberalisation of shop opening hours would accelerate the current market concentration process, in particular in the food retail sector. Recent market restructuring among Austria’s food retailers has led to an unprecedented concentration process, in that the two largest food retailers comprise about two-thirds of the Austrian market volume. The unions argue that such a virtual monopoly position will supplant smaller, local retailers and increase prices due to lack of competition.

Although the large retail companies have hitherto strongly influenced Austria’s legislation on shop opening hours, they are now unlikely to be able to enforce a further significant liberalisation, since none of the political parties and social partner organisations tend to support this goal.

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