The 24-hour society is upon us, say the pundits, markets are global and customer satisfaction round-the-clock is the key to success. Changing work patterns are reflected by changes in leisure time, and 'open 24 hours' signs have become a common sight in every busy street. But is there really money to be made in the dead of night, or is the scramble to be open all hours just another marketing gimmick?
'All-night opening started as a toe in the water exercise but now, more and more companies are doing it,' says Ann Grain, director of external affairs at the British Retail Consortium. This is particularly true in the grocery sector. Supermarkets staffed all night for deliveries and shelf-stacking find that the extra cost of opening the doors and manning a few tills is modest. 'Most of the overheads are there whether the store is open or not,' says Grain.
Since opening its first all-night store in Islington, north London, supermarket chain J Sainsbury has seen steady growth in business and now has 66 stores trading overnight for at least part of the week. 'We are responding to a definite customer demand and the cost of staying open is low,' says Nigel Wade, senior manager for retail support. None the less, stores that don't perform well are quickly returned to regular trading hours. So how do they know which stores will earn their keep at night? 'In urban areas where people have more cosmopolitan lifestyles, 24-hour opening works particularly well,' he says. Friday is the big night for late shoppers, suggesting that either a vibrant social life is less appealing to some than getting in a good stock of groceries or 24-hour trading provides a spontaneous night out for singles.
Lest we forget that there is no such thing as a new idea. Oil giant Shell has had all-night filling stations for 30 years - 80% of its forecourts (nearly 1,000 sites) never close. 'This is not some kind of PR gimmick for us. We do 20% of our business between 11pm and 7am,' says Mike Harle, marketing manager for Shell UK and Shell Ireland.
Direct selling to the customer by telephone has come of age in the past 10 years and with the proliferation of services have come those offering 24-hour availability. 'As far as we are concerned, customers should have what they want, when and where they want it,' says Peter Simpson, commercial director of telephone banking group First Direct. The economies of a phone-based business, with no expensive store network to maintain, allows the company to offer 24-hour service even if sales opportunities in the small hours are limited. 'We don't even cost our overnight operation because 24-hour service is simply part of our ethos,' he says.
Back on the high street, the viability of the '24-hour experience' hinges on what you are selling, says Clive Vaughan, research manager at retail consultants Verdict. 'It depends on an adequate level of demand,' he says.
'When was the last time you came out of a nightclub at three in the morning and wanted to buy a three-piece suite?'
'In the US, customers expect businesses to be open all night,' says Michael Taylor, marketing manager in the UK for American-owned office services company Kinko's. He believes that Britain will follow suit and all Kinko's branches in this country (currently a modest three) are 24-hour stores.
He admits that they do not get many callers at 2am but says confidently: 'Our late night business will grow as awareness grows and customer expectations rise.'
Back at First Direct, Simpson thinks that the biggest risk for business lies in ignoring the shift to an out-of-hours culture. 'We don't have a choice. The 24-hour society is inevitable,' he predicts.