Retail

A law from the 1600s will keep retail shops closed on Sundays at the nation's newest shopping mall

Key Points
  • The first phase of the American Dream megamall, in New Jersey, opens Oct. 25.
  • The retail shops aren't slated to open until March 2020.
  • When they do open, they'll remain dark on Sundays, in accordance with Bergen County's blue laws.
  • This part of the state, a mecca for shopping malls, has been the one hold out for this type of restriction in the U.S.
The American Dream complex stands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Gabby Jones | Bloomberg | Getty Images

It's quite ironic.

A massive entertainment and retail complex is opening in the last county in the country where commercial shopping is still prohibited on Sundays. The first phase of the project opens Friday, featuring a Nickelodeon-themed park and ice skating rink. Other parts of the complex will open in phases, including a water park, an indoor ski hill, and retail stores.

All told, 55% of the American Dream center will be dedicated to entertainment and dining, but 45% will be retail stores, which will open in March. When the stores do open, it will only be for six days every week.

So-called blue laws are still in place in Bergen County, New Jersey, where Triple Five Group's American Dream is situated.

It's the same county where Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield operates Garden State Plaza, one of the nation's top-performing malls. Also nearby are the Outlets at Bergen Town Center, and Paramus Park Mall. Yep, all closed on Sunday.

The history of the blue laws dates back nearly 2,000 years, when Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 321 wanted to set aside Sunday as a day for rest.

Until the 1990s, blue laws prohibiting the sale of clothes, home goods, appliances and other goods were much more common nationwide. The name "blue laws," according to historians, comes from the fact that the Puritans tended to write their laws on blue paper.

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New Jersey's blue laws, prohibiting work on Sundays, have been on the books since the 1600s.

That wouldn't really start to reverse course until the 1950s, when each New Jersey county was granted the right to decide on blue laws. Hudson County was the last one, outside of Bergen County, to repeal its blue laws, in the 1980s.

The decline in commercial blue laws nationwide can be partly attributed to the fact that big-box retailers like Walmart and Target were on the rise, and these chains didn't want to be closed on Sundays, according to Vicki Howard, author of "From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store."

"[Discounters] were popping up, and they broke the blue laws because they could," she said. "The small businesses couldn't do this."

Today, there are still various blue laws in place across the country today, but they're much more narrow. For example, some prohibit the sale of alcohol, sex toys and cars on Sundays, and also hunting certain animals. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for example, you can't buy packaged liquor on a Sunday, and restaurants there can only serve alcoholic beverages after noon. In North Dakota, you can't buy a motor vehicle on a Sunday.

Some have argued that the reason Bergen County has kept the blue laws for so long is because the area has long been one of the biggest shopping meccas in the U.S., with five major malls, not including American Dream. Residents have said, among other reasons, they need a reprieve from so much traffic on the roads on the weekend. Numerous votes have been put to the ballot to remove the laws, as other counties across the country have done, but all have failed.

"Retail is losing out," said John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, which represents shopping center owners and other retailers. "We are really behind the eight ball. ... Bergen County needs to enter the 21st century."

Within Bergen County, Holub said Paramus is the "epicenter of the opposition."

"The policymakers up there don't realize the world is changing," he said. "We have old policymakers up there thinking they might lose an election if the laws are repealed."

Holub said repealing Bergen's blue laws remains one of his association's "top priorities." He said 1993 was the last time a handful of municipalities in the county voted to repeal the laws. But they lost. Gov. Chris Christie had later included a line item on his budget in 2010, for $65 million, in an attempt to show how much sales taxes could be collected if the blue laws were stepped back. But it didn't make the cut.

In 2012, the blue laws were lifted temporarily following Hurricane Sandy, so that Bergen residents could get to a Home Depot or other stores for supplies on a Sunday. But they were soon after reinstated.

"It's a tremendous undertaking to get this back on the ballot," Holub said. "We think there are other legislative options we continue to explore."

While the retail shops like Tiffany, Zara and Saks Fifth Avenue aren't slated to open at American Dream until early next year, Triple Five Group has said they will adhere to the blue laws of Bergen County, so a little less than half of the property will be dark on Sundays.

Some people don't think policymakers will be budging anytime soon, even with the grand opening looming.

"Now Bergen County is proud of it. They are saying, 'We held out,'" said retail consultant Jan Rogers Kniffen, who spent two decades as a senior executive at May Department Stores before founding his own consulting agency. "We wanted [the blue laws] changed the whole time I was in business. We took them to vote and they wouldn't. ... I don't think they will ever get shopping on Sunday there."

But Kniffen also doesn't think of American Dream as a "mall."

"It's an amusement park," he said. "I would rather be boiled in oil than go shopping there. I wouldn't go to Disney World to shop."

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