Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Wide Open Shopping

The first year I attended the University of Georgia, in Athens, I lived in an apartment complex called Callaway Gardens near a busy four-lane highway lined with fast food joints and other roadside businesses. To me, this was city living. With some 50,000 inhabitants at the time, Athens was the biggest town I had ever lived it – and with the exception of Helsinki, it still is.

On the other side of the highway from my apartment, at the bottom of a hill, was a Kroger supermarket. It was the closest big grocery store and was open 24 hours a day. I recall once going there with my roommates at 3 o’clock in the morning to do our food shopping because...well, I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just because we could. Maybe we were pulling an all-nighter. Who knows? As you might expect, the place was practically deserted. No waiting at the checkout lanes.

Anyway, I was thus introduced to the convenience of 3 a.m. shopping, something that Athenians had perhaps been enjoying for years. That was in 1976.

It was very different when I moved to Helsinki a few years later. Like many European nations, Finland had always imposed strict limits on when stores could open their doors, the result of the combined influence of the national churches and the labor unions. I’m not quite sure why the clergy and unions should object so strongly to Sunday shopping, since almost no one goes to church anyway and retail workers get paid extra if they work outside regular weekday hours.

In any case, when I came here in the 80s, Sunday opening was still strictly verboten, except for service stations and kiosks. Other days of the week, stores were allowed do business only beginning at eight in the morning and had to close by eight in the evening (or six on Saturdays).

Opening hours were gradually expanded in the 1990s by two hours to between seven and nine (but still only to six on Saturdays). Even then, no shopping on the Sabbath for the Finns.

It feels like only yesterday (okay, it was in fact in 2000) that larger stores were finally allowed to open on most Sundays (between noon and six), much to the relief of hordes of working parents. Suddenly, we didn’t have to squeeze our major weekly shopping into Saturdays. Oh, the luxury of being able to push an overflowing cart of groceries around a big box store until 6 o’clock on a Sunday!

That’s the way it has stayed for most of this century, with some additional gradual loosening of opening hours in recent years for smaller stores (under 400 square meters in size) and even for bigger ones on certain religious holidays, mainly Epiphany (loppiainen, in Finnish), when stores have the chance to harvest extra business from Russian tourists making Christmas holiday visits from across the border.

(January 6th, which in Finland is Epiphany, the day the Magi brought presents to Baby Jesus, is celebrated as Christmas Eve in Russia, due to the Russian Orthodox Church clinging to the old calendar created under Julius Caesar. No fancy 16th-century tinkering around with the calendar by Pope Gregory for them!)

Even with expanded opening times, some other public holidays have remained sacred. An American tourist making a port call from a cruise ship this summer was interviewed on a Helsinki street by a TV reporter. He complained bitterly how on his one and only day in the Finnish capital absolutely no shops were open. It was Juhannus, Midsummer’s Day, a day of relaxing and partying in the countryside. Who would want to shop then anyway?

As of six days ago, however, the gates of the Finnish shopping world have been thrown wide open. A new law removes absolutely any restrictions on opening hours, leaving it entirely up to any retail businesses to decide how to arrange its business hours, even allowing them to open on any public holidays. It’s up to the store to decide if staying open late or on holidays justifies the higher salaries that employees get for those hours.

It’s a huge change for Finland, and probably quite unusual in Europe. For example, the EU capital Brussels still closes shut at six, eight at the latest.

Our local suburban grocery is open today, though not for the first time on Epiphany. Thanks to the new law, it will soon introduce new hours, staying open until ten, even on Saturdays and Sundays.

Will I ever be able to walk over there at 3 a.m. to load up on fish sticks, cheese and potatoes? For that store, as for most others in Helsinki, I doubt operating around the clock would ever make economic sense. And anyway I doubt I’d want to shop again in the dead of night. 

But you never know. 

Finns bustling at the Sello shopping mall near Helsinki. Photo by Skorpion87.


  1. Ah, the consumerist society. Even long-held traditions of thousands of years kneel before it.

    Ironically, (as I am an atheist), I support the reintroduction of blue laws. For many reasons, not least of which are the need to have at least a mild pause on ceaseless consuming and a moment when the most abused of us can rest.

    "...since almost no one goes to church anyway and retail workers get paid extra if they work outside regular weekday hours."

    Only a person who has never made his life as a laborer could say something like that. As a laborer, let me say that my leisure time is precious. To be able to not be forced to work is a good thing. Yes, I know laborers who work every instant of overtime that they can grab, and who yearn to be able to work seven days a week, 365 days a year. These people are union members (a dying breed in the USA), and (alas)...insane.

    1. I often think long-held traditions of thousands of years are hugely overrated. But, that’s just me – and maybe beside the point.

      Anyway, when it comes to working hours, you have to keep in mind that I’m talking here in the context of Finland, which apparently has much stronger labor laws than the US. Wage earner aren’t required to work more than an average of 40 hours a week, so they definitely can enjoy time off during the week, not to mention the normal 5 weeks of vacation a year.

      In that context, I imagine many people working in retail really don’t mind doing a shift on Sundays, when the pay is double the regular wage. My daughter, who works part-time as a cashier, often specifically asks for shifts on Sundays just for that reason. I can understand that in the States, however, the situation for retail workers is very different, and often exploitative.