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On the Seventh Day - They Closed Shop

They come from different walks of life and different faiths. They run businesses as diverse as fast-food restaurants and hardware rental stores. Yet they share a common conviction:

Sundays are special.

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So every seventh day, these business people, across the country, pull down the window shade and quietly close up shop.

They are not religious zealots. Nor do they run mom-and-pop operations that often close on weekends anyway. Their mid-size and large stores compete head-on against national retail giants that draw customers seven days a week.

Sometimes they prosper, sometimes they struggle. But with even Federal Express making Sunday deliveries, just taking a stand is often a big step.

"Everything can't be a business decision," says Steve Goedeker, owner of Goedeker's, an electronics and appliance store in St. Louis. "You have to start with a certain set of principles. You make your business decisions around them."

Truett Cathy, president of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain based in Atlanta, takes much the same approach. "There are things more important than money in business," he says.

Both men close their stores on Sundays - partly to give employees time with their families; partly for religious reasons. (Mr. Goedeker is Roman Catholic; Mr. Cathy, Southern Baptist.)

Yet, much of US retail business seems headed the other direction, perhaps because churches draw fewer people than a generation ago, perhaps because Americans work so much that weekends offer the only time to shop.

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"Sundays are a very important part of the retail week," says Bruce Van Kleeck, vice president of member services for the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C. "On a sales per hour [basis], they are certainly the second busiest day of the week after Saturdays."

Small wonder then that national chains often push hard to roll back the restrictions still imposed by a few communities on Sunday shopping. In Maryland, for example, national retailers AutoNation and CarMax have lobbied to repeal county laws prohibiting Sunday car sales.

When successful, such actions set off a predictable chain of events. One store opens for a few hours on Sundays; competitors follow. Someone extends their hours and everyone falls in line.

"It's like everything else," says Harmon Born, president of Atlanta's largest Ford dealership, which closes on Sundays. "We've allowed little by little our walls of defense chipped away because we didn't take a stand."

To discourage this kind of "business creep," some localities restrict Sunday shopping. But civil-liberties advocates call such "blue laws" unconstitutional.

"Clearly the blue laws are a remnant of time gone by," says Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. "It would serve all of us well to hope that families have time together.... [But] some families celebrate their day of rest on Saturdays, some on Sundays. and some only have Tuesday night! So I think we get into trouble when we try to say when and how."

Some six-day-a-week business owners call their stand personal - not something they expect society to emulate. In fact, many play down their Sundays stance.

"We're about what we are doing, not what we're not doing," says Bobby Ukrop, president and chief operating officer of Ukrop's. The regional chain of 25 grocery stores based in Richmond, Va., closes on Sundays. Customers should come because of the shopping experience, he adds, not because of the chain's stand on Sunday hours.

Sunday shopping is not quite as important to the grocery business as elsewhere. Only 10 percent of all shoppers and 11 percent of full-time workers make a major shopping trip to their local grocer on Sundays. (See chart.)

That trend may partly explain Ukrop's success. Despite competition from national giants, the chain has grown steadily to become Richmond's leading grocer, with about a third of the market.

Not everyone with a no-Sunday policy prospers so well.

"To be honest with you, it's getting more and more difficult to continue doing it," says Don Stoliker, president of Handy Andy Rent-A-Tool in Seattle and a lay official in the Mormon church.

"If you read the Scriptures [it says] 'Remember the sabbath to keep it holy,'" he adds. But seven of the nation's top 100 rental companies operate some 80 outlets in his region - all open on Sunday.

"It's an ongoing dilemma,' he says. "Which do you hold true to the most: your spiritual mores or your ability to support your family? And when it gets to the point that the business starts to lose money, the decision gets more interesting. We're approaching that point."

In St. Louis, Goedeker's battles head-to-head with national retailers Circuit City and Best Buy. Both chains have stores within "yelling distance," says a Goedeker's salesman.

And while the store's no-Sunday policy attracts some customers, Goedeker says, "we also get some of the negative. 'You are using this to capitalize.' 'You are wearing religion on your sleeve.'... It's something you have to pray over."

And be consistent about. All these entrepreneurs limit their own shopping on Sundays. Goedeker tries to avoid all Sunday shopping. Mr. Stoliker doesn't have time for it and Mr. Ukrop never does except on family trips.

"The quickest way to get businesses not to operate on Sunday is for those of us who believe it's wrong not to shop on Sunday," says Mr. Born, the Atlanta Ford dealer.

Cathy takes a more relaxed attitude. He recently learned that building crews sometimes worked Sundays to put up new Chick-Fil-A restaurants. Cathy tried to stop the practice but relented when he learned the crews did it to catch up on deadline work or were anxious to get back to their own family.

"I think you've got to use a little common sense," he says.

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