Sunday closings of supermarkets upheld by court

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Sunday closings of supermarkets upheld by court

The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by big supermarket chains to free them from regulations that force them to close two Sundays a month and limit their operating hours, sending the case back to the Seoul High Court on Thursday.

The Supreme Court ruling will likely end the legal battle started in 2012 by six large supermarket chains including E-Mart, Homeplus and Lotte Mart. Local governments introduced the restrictions to protect mom-and-pop stores, but the big players said they infringed on consumers’ rights.

“It is necessary to foster a healthy retail culture and balanced development with small and medium-sized merchants,” the court said, ruling in favor of the regulations. Eleven justices agreed with the ruling while two dissented.

“It is hard to say that the regulation fundamentally hurts consumers’ rights on the grounds that the closing days only occur twice a month, and the regulated hours were hours during which only few customers would visit.”

The six stores filed a complaint against the Seongdong District Office and Dongdaemun District Office in 2012.

After they lost the first case, they appealed to the Seoul High Court in 2013. The High Court reversed the first ruling, saying the government’s forced holidays and business hour restrictions were against the law.

The district offices welcomed Thursday’s decision and pledged to further protect small merchants.

The Seongdong District Office said that it will further restrict the business hours of the big-box discount chains to protect smaller retailers.

“If there were no restrictions, small independent stores and traditional markets could have been put at a disadvantage by the presence of big discount chains,” district chief Chong Won-o said. “Since the big chains have an upper hand in size, prices and services, they could dominate the market.”

The Korea Small Business Association, which represents small merchants, also supported the Supreme Court ruling.

The big retailers conceded defeat but still complained about the regulations.

“Even though the regulations have little effect and cause inconvenience to consumers and our partners, we respect the decision of the Supreme Court,” Homeplus said in a statement.

Despite government efforts to encourage people to shop at traditional markets, recent reports show that their overall sales have sharply declined over the past few years.

The number of stores in traditional markets nationwide increased by 6.9 percent, or 89 stores, from 2009 to 2013, but sales at those stores fell 9.5 percent, or 2.1 trillion won ($2.1 billion), from 22 trillion won in 2009 to 19.9 trillion won in 2013, according to a study by Rep. Kim Han-pyo of the ruling Saenuri Party.

On the other hand, sales at large discount stores operated by conglomerates surged despite the government’s attempt to limit their business operations.

The report found that sales at large discount stores jumped from 33.2 trillion won in 2009 to 45.1 trillion won in 2013, a 35.8 percent increase.

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