A former manager of Virgin Megastore in Belfast has said it’s “embarrassing” that Sunday trading hours in the city centre still haven’t changed, despite campaigning for them to be reformed in the 1990s alongside Sir Richard Branson.
Stephen Millings (60) was the first manager of the music and film shop, which opened in 1990, before moving on to become the manager of CastleCourt.
Mr Millings, who has worked in retail since he was a teenager, told the Belfast Telegraph he used to be tasked with entertaining senior management who had flown over to visit the store, and they didn’t realise that Belfast’s Sunday opening hours can be different to the rest of the UK.
“I once had to take a managing director of Virgin’s stores for a drive around the coast for a chippy because there was nothing for them to do on a Sunday morning,” he said.
Mr Millings also took a few members of management back to his home for a meal because he was mortified that there was nothing for them to do in the city.
He recalled a time when Virgin representatives were looking for locations for a new store. He hired a car to take them to Londonderry, only to find the city’s closures to be “worse than Belfast”.
“The reason the Sunday trading hours really get under my skin is that when I was manager of the Virgin store, from Monday to Saturday I was the top-performing store out of the entire chain. But by the time I came in on a Monday morning, my store had dropped to third or fourth because everyone else had a Sunday under their belt and I didn’t,” Mr Millings added.
He says it was this frustration that sparked his passion to campaign for reform on Sunday trading hours. He even received help from Virgin’s billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson, who wrote a letter of support for Mr Millings’ mission. Sir Richard also had similar issues with the trading hours in his stores in France. The two even shared a conversation on the matter.
Stephen, who began his career working in his father’s record shop in the city centre as a young boy, has long campaigned for changes to retail opening times to benefit shop profits. He led a similar campaign to allow stores in the city centre to close at midnight to accommodate shoppers during Christmas, recalling how he literally had to “throw customers out” at closing due to the popularity of its new closing time.
Mr Millings says he never wished to see stores in Northern Ireland forced to alter their opening times, but instead, wanted the change to reflect each shop individually.
“I don’t want it to be illegal for a shop to open earlier if they want to. If a shop wants to open at 11 am, or even 9am on a Sunday, it should not be illegal to do that. It should be entirely their choice,” he said.
He also rejects the idea that changing trading hours would adversely affect workers, noting that throughout his retail career he “never had an issue with people wanting to work”. He says Virgin Megastore employed a large number of students who were “tripping over themselves” for extra hours.
“I can’t believe in the 25 years since I advocated for change, both the Belfast city centre and the whole of Northern Ireland still can’t open before 1pm,” he said.
When asked why things haven’t changed, Mr Millings thinks there has been no appetite in senior retail management for larger reform, acknowledging the pandemic left a lot of retail environments “grateful they can just open their shutters, never mind trying to change Sunday openings”.
“I was always told it was the culture and a lack of appetite, but you’re always going to face blocks when you try to change something in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“Three or four years ago, there would have been no excuse for people to actively try to change the law, it still vexes me that the trading act of 1997 has not changed a single bit. If tourism is going to help Northern Ireland post-pandemic, you can’t have a city literally closed on a Sunday morning. If you can’t offer the basics to people who want to do some shopping in the city, your economy isn’t going to benefit.”