Imagine this: it’s 3am and you can’t sleep. You have a busy day ahead, so you get dressed, make a shopping list and pop out to the supermarket and turn those sleepless and wasted night hours to good use - by doing the week’s shopping.

Impossible? Already insomniacs across Britain can shop 24 hours a day in most towns and cities. Admittedly I know of no-one who has ever tried shopping at 3am, but it is possible with some of the UK’s major supermarket chains boasting that hundreds of their branches are now open 24 hours a day.

One economic argument is that once a large store is open until midnight, the costs involved in closing then reopening some six or seven hours later and remaining open all night are almost the same. But the store owners claim the strongest reason for staying open 24 hours a day is that it is what customers want.

It is not the ability of retailers to cater for insomniacs that is disturbing, but the way retailing is controlling our lives. A few years ago I used to enjoy shopping with my wife in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse on a Saturday, happy in the knowledge that at 4pm the shops would all close and, despite my wife’s enthusiasm, we could do nothing but go home. Now that period of male torture has been extended by an hour. Once I was safe on holidays like Knabenschiessen, now I have the problem that many stores remain open.

Switzerland’s shopping hours were once so sensible: at lunchtime shoppers had to stop for an hour and a half and have lunch. Now Swiss cities are witness to the sandwich eaten on the move, as the lunchtime pause fades into history. Sunday was truly a day of rest with all shops closed and the population had no choice but to relax or go to church. Today one look at any filling station with a shop, rail station or airport supermarket will tell you the public and the shopkeepers are tired of relaxing.

Longer opening hours may suit some customers, but it suits large retailers even more. As in most western economies, Swiss shopping chains find their market is saturated, that is to say, they have attracted as many customers as they can. The ways to increase their ‘bottom line’, expand and give those hungry shareholders their value, are limited. Retailers can try to extract more money out of existing customers’ pockets – a difficult trick to pull. Another approach is to start taking other shops’ customers. Retail chains can do this in various ways. They can widen their stock range. Thus, for example, supermarkets are keen to sell a range of pharmaceuticals. Arguably this would make life easier for customers with headaches, as they could buy Aspirin together with their potatoes in what is called in English ‘one-stop’ shopping. It would also mean that supermarkets could claim some of the market – and revenue - currently held by chemists.

Longer opening hours is also a very effective way of increasing market share. Take the Müller family for example, running their corner shop – the one where Tante Emma works. They simply don’t have the resources, staff or will to open longer hours and on Sundays. They enjoy their free time and don’t believe they would gain any new business by opening longer. To the contrary, their overheads would increase and their position and prices would not attract new customers, existing customers would shop over longer hours, but would not spend more. However, if the likes of Coop, Migros, Denner, Pic Pay etc. are open 24 hours a day and all day Sundays offering prices that the Müllers simply cannot compete with at any day of the week, then the giants stand to gain by attracting the Müller’s clientele. They will be open, offering lower prices, when the Müllers are more expensive and closed.

The large retail chains may well lobby for a loosening of shop opening hours. They may well point to the advantages for consumers. They may be right that longer shopping hours do reflect lifestyles in the 21st century. But longer opening hours also adds rather nicely to their bottom line. And the sting in the tail is that the customer will end up with less choice as the Müllers of this world – the small local shops – close down as a result and we are left with only what the large chains have to offer.

Extending shop-opening hours is rather like entering your favourite shop to find it in chaos as the builders remodel the place. The shop owners put up the hopeful sign “Wir bauen für Sie um!” They are most certainly not doing it for me! As far as I am concerned you can leave it as it was, that way I know exactly where everything is and I don’t have to suffer months of noise, dirt and inconvenience that comes from shopping in a building site. The same is true with shops being open longer. I don’t want to spend my waking hours pushing a shopping cart. (Wägeli)

Retailers must react to market forces to survive and ever-longer shopping hours will come to Switzerland sooner or later. Just like Swiss membership of the United Nations, it is inevitable. But don’t be surprised to find that it the final nail in the coffin of many small shops.