The debate on retail opening hours sprang back to life recently when a Montreal car dealership, Pie-IX Dodge Chrysler, brought joy to its customers – and dismay to its competitors – by opening for business on weekends.
Management and staff recognized times have changed. People have busier schedules than they did 30 years ago and wanted the convenience of being able to shop on weekends. This is normal: An automobile is a major purchase.
Management struck up a deal with sales representatives, who agreed to reorganize their work schedules. The company even hired more employees to meet demand.
Everyone found something to like in this deal, or so it seemed. But, alas, not everyone was happy.
When a retail merchant modifies opening hours or finds some other way of pleasing consumers, competitors have to adapt or risk losing customers. Having to question constantly the way you do business and deal with competition is the most vexatious aspect of the market economy.
In a passage in his 1776 masterpiece The Wealth of Nations, philosopher and economist Adam Smith remarked when people involved in the same trade get together, talk often turns to ways of conspiring against the public.
That’s human nature. People tend to prefer easy solutions over effort. If you can agree on a higher price, or on splitting the cake so everyone gets a piece, or on management methods that allow for less effort with no sanctions, why go to any extra trouble?
In practice, such accords are hard to maintain in a market economy. It takes just one defector, or one newcomer who refuses to join in, for the agreement to collapse. That’s how competition protects consumers and impels businesses to keep improving.
In contrast, restrictions imposed by law on freedom of trade, enterprise or labour tend to endure.
This can be observed in sectors where governments have established legal monopolies (health insurance, the liquor trade, home delivery of mail) or have given sectoral or professional associations the power to regulate the entry of new members (construction workers, doctors).
In these cases, a single enterprising player who is prepared to break ranks remains impotent. A whole campaign has to be organized to overcome corporatist forces defending their terrain.
Fortunately, where cars are concerned, the dealers’ association lacks the power to impose rules on its members. Pie-IX Dodge Chrysler is facing boycotts, demonstrations and intimidation aimed at forcing it to pull back.
Let’s hope this rebel dealer holds its ground. Some individuals in the business see them as traitors. But as a consumer, I see them as heroes.
Paul Daniel Muller is president of the Montreal Economic Institute.