NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s debate over shopping on Sundays took off again this week, after the three most powerful grocery chains that wield control over consumers ended up in a highly public brawl involving police. The noisy conflict also highlights absurdities in current law that provide numerous loopholes for those opposing Sunday shopping to actually profit from it.
It remains, in general, illegal for stores to open for business on Sunday in Norway, even though the country’s conservative government tried to change that last year. Reform-minded policians ran into massive opposition from some of the most powerful grocery and retailing lobbyists themselves, not least NorgesGruppen, which owns and operates chains like Meny, Kiwi, Joker and Spar.
There are many exceptions to the law prohibiting Sunday shopping, though: It’s allowed in areas considered tourism centers, on the three Sundays before Christmas and also all year if the shop in question is less than 100 square meters in size.
As it turns out, NorgesGruppen not only has kept most of its stores open on summer Sundays in holiday areas but it also has rebuilt many of its stores to offer a smaller space that can remain open on Sunday. At a free-standing Kiwi in Hadeland, for example, it’s entirely possible to shop on Sundays despite Kiwi’s owners’ vehement protests against Sunday shopping. It was even open on New Year’s Day, as was a nearby Bunnpris store.
What’s more, if shoppers can’t find what they need on a Sunday afternoon, they’ve been able to ask clerks at the Hadeland Kiwi to pop into the main, allegedly closed, portion of the store to fetch it for them. Abashed NorgesGruppen officials were forced on national TV on Monday to admit this has occurred “as an extra service” for customers.
“Foul!” cried one of the heirs to the rival REMA 1000 grocery chain, Ole Robert Reitan. Like the families behind Norway’s other grocery retailers (many of whom are wholesalers as well) the Reitans have grown wealthy in a business that effectively controls what’s available to shoppers in Norway and, to a large degree, at what prices. The high prices still found even in Norwegian stores billed as billig (cheap) result from a combination of taxes, costs, regulation of dairy and meat products, government subsidy and agricultural protectionism that restricts imports, and wholesalers’ grip on the market. There’s a reason selection at Norwegian grocery stores is so much poorer than in most other countries including neighbouring Sweden (and why Swedish stores in border areas are packed with Norwegian customers). There’s also a reason why lists of Norway’s wealthiest individuals invariably include grocery store magnates. They’ve made lots of money over the years on often-passive Norwegian consumers.
Competition among the four major chains, however, has been heating up while consumers have become more demanding. And Reitan of REMA 1000 resorted this week to literally reporting 120 stores run by his rivals to the police for allegedly violating the law against Sunday shopping and illegally exploiting its loopholes. Of the 120 stores, 95 are owned by NorgesGruppen in the form of Kiwis, Jokers, Menys and Spars. Four are owned by Coop (which just recently took over lots of ICA stores after the Swedish ICA pulled out of the Norwegian market) and 21 are part of the Bunnpris chain.
Reitan claims that his rivals aren’t playing fair. He complained of “systematic” violations regarding the size of shop space (more than the allowed 100 square meters) and the habit of fetching goods for customers from the main part of the store that’s supposed to be closed. Reitan was confronted with allegations on NRK’s nationwide nightly newscast Monday that at least one of his REMA 1000 stores was guilty of the same. He was not flustered, suggesting that if one of his store managers felt forced to offer the same “service” as his rival, it could be excused.
The point, Reitan claimed, is that Norway’s existing law should be enforced and followed by all, and that debate over it should resume. He claimed it was “comical” how the law was currently being practiced. He’s frustrated that the dominant NorgesGruppen chain, which has market share of around 40 percent, has grown more than his REMA 1000 chain, not least by opening around 350 stores on Sundays even though NorgesGruppen fought against a law proposed last fall that would have allowed Sunday shopping.
NorgesGruppen, caught off guard by Reitan’s decision to file police charges against its stores, was indignant, with its chief claiming that Reitan was forcing his interpretation of the current law and its loopholes on his competitors. NorgesGruppen defended its practice and apparently sees no hypocrisy in its opposition to Sunday shopping while offering it at the same time.
Others accused Reitan of being “desperate” and pulling off a PR stunt. That didn’t bother him: “We are tired of seeing how today’s law isn’t enforced,” he told newspaper Aftenposten. He wants the politicians, whom he also blames for allowing the concentration of power within the grocery business, to take up the issue again after the government gave up its effort to reform Sunday shopping in December. It also dropped efforts to force through a new law governing retailing ethics and practices, like how suppliers are forced to pay for display space inside the stores.
‘Store patrols … not a priority’
Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats, one of two support parties for the government, firmly opposed the proposal to allow Sunday shopping and played a major role in effectively killing it. Hareide worried just before Christmas, though, that he feared the fight wasn’t over. Given Reitan’s latest move, it certainly isn’t, and the Conservative Party still wants stores to be able to open for business if they want to. Their other support party, the Liberals, want local communities to be able to decide on store openings themselves.
Now the police are charged with having to investigate whether 120 stores around the country are guilty of violatig the current law. Kai Spurkland, a prosecutor for the Oslo Police District, admitted to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that enforcing the current grocery store law with all its exceptions hasn’t been a high priority: “Store patrol has been somewhat outside our line of duty.” Enforcement of the grocery law also falls into a vacuum of sorts among local city regulators, police, the county and the state. Spurkland promised that the complaints filed by Reitan will be handled, though, in line with other alleged violations of the law.