In 1987, retail trading hours in Victoria were extended to include Saturday afternoon trading, a move that changed the whole shopping experience. However, it was almost another decade until Sunday trading was introduced. Other states have taken different approaches to extended retail trading hours, with Western Australia remaining the most restrictive. Only the ACT and the Northern Territory have completely deregulated trading hours.

Trading hours have always been a subject for conflict between the public interest and that of workers in retail businesses, including the hospitality sector and liquor outlets. Shop trading hours in Victoria were standardised in 1905, with 6pm becoming the general closing time for metropolitan shops in Melbourne in 1906.

No Saturday afternoon trading for grocers

Family grocer, Port Melbourne. Algernon Darge 1881-1941 photographer. (State Library of Victoria)

In many parts of Australia, Wednesday afternoon was taken as a half-holiday, allowing shops to open all day on Saturday. During the latter half of the decade, retail employees agitated for Saturday to become the half holiday instead. In Victoria, this was achieved in 1912.

For the next 75 years, however, retail trading hours remained a vexed question. At various points, the unions representing the shop assistants proposed that shops should be closed entirely on Saturdays. In 1947, when the Court of Arbitration decreed a 40-hour working week for Australians, there was a push by butchers to close on Saturdays and, to the distress of suburban housewives, bakers no longer made weekend deliveries.

Consumer Affairs advocates strongly opposed the idea of closing shops on Saturday mornings and newspaper editorials pointed out  that workers in other fields had to cope with being rostered on for Saturday work. In Victoria, Friday night shopping had been abandoned in 1946, leaving Saturday morning as the sole opportunity for most working people to replenish their pantries and their wardrobes. As late as 1968, the union was still asserting that “the public does not need Saturday shopping”.

By the 1970s, though, the situation had changed. Now the push was to extend, not curtail, retail trading hours. In Victoria, the first step forward was to reintroduce Friday night trading from 1971. Some kinds of shops, in markets and tourist areas, were granted special exemptions that allowed them to trade on weekends.

However, the unions refused to budge of the issue of Saturday afternoon trading.  In 1981, the Saturday Afternoon Shopping Association was formed by some of the larger retailers. They ran an expensive PR and media campaign promoting the economic and public benefits of a full trading day on Saturday. The union responded with a campaign of its own and, judging by letters to the newspapers, the public was divided on the issue, with some calling it a “greedy manoeuvre” by the big retailers.

A proposed trial of Saturday afternoon trading in the weeks leading up to Christmas 1981 was abruptly cancelled by a Victorian Liberal government facing an election in early 1982. However, it was a Labor government that finally instituted the reform of trading hours. In 1986 a trial of Saturday afternoon trading was conducted during the pre-Christmas period. The following year, after a similar pre-Christmas extension of trading hours, Saturday afternoon trading was permanently established in Victoria.

Similar struggles had taken place in New South Wales. In 1978, trading hours were deregulated for retail businesses that were owned and operated by no more than two people and employed no more than two others.  Some larger retailers began trading illegally on Saturday afternoons and in 1984 a new agreement was reached that permitted all-day trading for all.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the agreement “gives a 38-hour week, virtually wipes out casual work and give many other benefits including improved penalty rates for the employees of the six companies, Grace Bos, Woolworths, Coles, Target, Safeways and Myer”.