On any given Sunday morning in Winnipeg just before noon, they're out there, waiting for the stores to open.
When the weather is warm, they can be found loitering just outside the doors of retailers such as Superstore and Costco or malls such as St. Vital Centre. In the winter, they take shelter inside their idling cars.
Call them impatient Sunday shoppers.
Once a day of rest for store owners, their employees and customers, Sunday now ranks second only to Saturday in retail dominance, city retailers say.
And on a per-hour basis, many Winnipeg stores see more customers and sell more goods on Sunday than on any other day of the week.
"It's our No. 1 day by far, per hour," said John Graham, a local spokesman for Canada Safeway. "Each Sunday morning we open the doors to waiting customers."
At Polo Park Shopping Centre, the situation is similar, general manager Deborah Green said.
Traffic counters at mall entrances reveal a higher concentration of shoppers coming and going on Sunday than on other days. "You open those doors at noon, you're busy right away," Green said.
Manitoba has one of the most restrictive Sunday shopping laws in Canada.
It restricts store hours to between noon and 6 p.m. Convenience stores are exempt from the provision.
Across the border in North Dakota and in neighbouring Saskatchewan and Ontario, retailers are free to set their own hours on Sunday.
For years, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has hounded the Manitoba government to give city store owners the same freedom. It's unfair, the chamber argues, that every industry in Manitoba has the right to set its hours on Sunday except for the retail sector.
"We're in a policy museum here when it comes to retail shopping hours," chamber president Dave Angus said recently. "I think it's time for us to get with the rest of North America, frankly."
Many in the province seem to agree. When the business lobby group surveyed 800 Manitobans last fall asking if they would support allowing retailers to set their own hours, nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) were somewhat or strongly in favour. Among 25- to 39-year-olds, 70 per cent supported unrestricted shopping hours.
-- -- --
Store owners say the pressure to extend store hours is coming from shoppers. A half-century ago, most households in the city lived off one income, and there was more time for families to get their shopping done. Today, two-income families juggle jobs with driving kids to lessons and sporting activities. Often they don't have time to do their shopping on Saturday or during the week.
That's why grocery stores and shopping malls are jammed with customers during that six-hour shopping window on Sunday.
In Regina and Saskatoon, where Safeway can set its hours, the grocery chain opens its stores at 9 a.m. on Sundays and closes them at 7 p.m.
"In other markets, we do a very good business from 10 a.m. to noon as people gear up for their Sunday lunches or get their grocery shopping behind them so they can have family time in the afternoon," said Safeway's Graham.
At Polo Park, Green said the mall, given its druthers, would likely keep similar hours to most other Cadillac Fairview shopping centres in Western Canada. They open at 11 a.m. on a Sunday and close at 6 p.m.
"People want to shop earlier," she said.
Many retailers believe if they were able to set their own shopping hours on Sunday, it would boost their sales -- and government tax revenues -- while making life easier for customers.
"It would certainly have a beneficial impact (on sales). That's the clear consensus from the sector," said Lanny McInnes, local representative for the Retail Council of Canada. "It's really about providing retailers the ability to choose when and how to serve their customers the best way that they can."
Before Sunday shopping was introduced in Manitoba on a trial basis in 1992, there was concern about how much money flowed over the border into North Dakota, which had more liberal shopping laws. Today, in some retail sectors, there are also fears that busy people will shop online if their options are limited.
-- -- --
With an election on the horizon, Manitoba's two major political parties say they're content with the existing Sunday shopping law.
Labour Minister Jennifer Howard said the current arrangement balances the needs of retailers and workers. Stores can still open up, while workers have the comfort of knowing there's one morning in the week they can count on as family time.
"It's a balance that has held for almost two decades now and there's not, to me at this point, a compelling reason to change that," she said.
Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen's position is remarkably similar. He said people appreciate having a time during the week that is "free from the hustle and bustle" of retail activity. The Conservatives, he said, would be "cautious about making changes to the status quo."
Neither Howard nor McFadyen perceive the deregulation of Sunday shopping hours as a pressing public concern.
"As far as I know, I've never received an email or phone call to my office from a regular Manitoban clamouring for more shopping hours," McFadyen said.
Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said, however, that the NDP and Conservatives are "behind the times" on the issue. "I think that we should move to what other provinces have done and that is to allow retailers to set their own hours."
-- -- --
The Winnipeg retail scene is changing rapidly, and observers say the pressure will build to remove restrictions on Sunday shopping.
Over the next couple of years, Ikea, Target and several new Walmart superstores will become a part of city life. Chain stores that once took a pass on Winnipeg, such as fashion's Forever 21 and teen magnet Hollister, have arrived or are setting up shop.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, scheduled to open at The Forks next year, will bring thousands of tourists from outside Manitoba to Winnipeg. These visitors will likely scratch their heads at being unable to shop in the morning on Sunday at the city's larger stores.
"The tourists we're expecting from the museum are driving an awful lot of the retail (expansion) that we're seeing right now," said Rob Warren, who heads the Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba. "Because that's going to be a seven-day venture, I think you'd want your retail hours set accordingly."
Will Winnipeggers still be lining up at stores moments before noon on a Sunday a decade from now? Somehow it seems unlikely.
The province could ensure retail clerks -- and other workers -- have family time during the week by tweaking labour laws.
John McCallum, a longtime U of M economist, remembers when banks were only open from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. "It didn't work," he said.
"Inexorably, at some point, this (unrestricted Sunday shopping) will happen."