Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Grim Reading


The latest beer sales figures make grim reading as volumes, particularly in the on trade continue to decline. It is a horrible picture. Of course beer sales are just part of most pub's portfolio these days, so don't present a total overview of how pubs are performing, but nonetheless it is depressing. The Pub Curmudgeon has covered this in his blog and foresees that we will have no pubs left soon, though cheeringly, it is unlikely he'll have popped his clogs before the last one goes in 2037. I know he jests, but if the arithmetic doesn't change, he will be right. There is already huge swathes of poorer areas that no longer have pubs at all and rural pubs who have been suffering badly for years are also badly affected, as are most other types. Yes a lot of bottom end pubs have closed, but it isn't just them. The serious point is that the decline in on trade beer drinking, seems inexorable and the closure of more pubs inevitable. We haven't reached the bottom yet and have no idea when we will.

It is also informative to read that the fall off in on trade drinking started before the smoking ban and has continued, grindingly, ever since, though indeed as Mudgie points out, it peaked just after the smoking ban. That alone doesn't explain the drop in pub going, though "the ban" (and please, this is not a debate about the smoking ban, so don't chip in on that basis alone) has certainly had an effect, but it is clearly not the only factor in this sorry tale.

Society is changing in ways we could never have predicted. The web, social networking, time shifting multi channel TV, more comfortable homes, price, health awareness, recession, job insecurity, generational attitude shifts and more, dictate that a pub will never again be on every street corner, bursting at the seams and the only place to go for an entertaining interlude. While the pub trade asks government to alter beer taxes, to give preferential duty rates, to curb the supermarkets and to tilt the balance back into their favour by administrative means, they are mostly wasting their time. That would likely make little difference as the changes in public attitude seem to be as much a factor as price. There's a mountain to climb. Nonetheless, the pub trade still refuses as a whole to face up to this and the fact that to attract customers and keep them, it has to be better. It has to offer a smile, a warm welcome (that just means a "hello" or a "thanks"), good surroundings, decent food and an experience that is attractive and competitive against other offerings. It has to offer good service and a wide range of beers that people actually want to drink, rather than the ones they can buy cheaply and sell dear. Pubs need to fully compete against each other to attract those customers that are left and to gain potential new ones. They need to drive up standards, which in far too many instances are still firmly mired in the 1970's. The trade, rather than whine about taxation and "unfairness" - even if it exists - ought give as much, if not more emphasis to good old fashioned customer service and value for money. It can rant and rave about unfairness, or just get on with doing something about the things that are within their control.

There are still well over 50,000 pubs in the UK, so let's not give up hope yet. At the end of the day, as in all retailing, it's all about the offer. For a lot of people, there are too many cheaper and better options. Make the offer tempting and the experience a good one and people will (probably) still come to pubs. Get it wrong and they certainly wont.

The pub shown is in Oldham. You will see that demographics are a factor too. Picture source: Adam Brierley

24 comments:

The Beer Nut said...

Spot on, sir!

Mind you, there's a particular Toby Carvery I'm unfortunately acquainted with where business is always booming. I really wouldn't like it if more English pubs followed its rather bland recipe for success.

Curmudgeon said...

Not a lot to disagree with there and (as you know) I have never put forward the smoking ban as a monocausal explanation for the decline of pubs, although over the past three years it has certainly exacerbated the downward trend. You are quite right to say that pubs must look to their own salvation and stop blaming other people and demanding special treatment from government. It's just not going to happen.

Even in the current climate plenty of pubs are conspicuously successful – well-run specialist beer pubs, most Wetherspoons, Brunning & Price, for example – and pubs need to look to what succeeds rather than just going through the same old routines.

I'm glad you think it's unlikely I'll have popped by clogs by 2037 ;-)

Tandleman said...

BN - You may have to have it in the mix.

Mudgie - I was taking your word for that.

Curmudgeon said...

I actually said "I might be dead by then, of course." But, statistically, it's more likely than not that I won't be.

On the Toby Carvery front, there are pubs that "work" without offering anything remotely of interest on the beer front. Far better a busy crap pub than a closed one – as long as it's there, there's a chance of improvement.

@zatytom said...

I am unconvinced the doom-and-gloom picture of pubs I keep reading: Many, probably most, of the pubs I rate highly and visit often have opened (or at the very least, changed hands and altered greatly in character - The Pimlico Tram becoming the Cask, and the Jolly Butcher in Stoke Newington are obvious often-cited examples) in the last 5-10 years.

Most of the pubs I have noticed that have closed recently look rough and dirty, and like the sort of place that would offer a poor range of poorly-kept beers - i.e. somewhere I wouldn't want to go anyway. I think the majority (though by no means all, one of my favourite Bristol pubs closed last year) of that "29 a week" statistic are unpleasant pubs that don't offer a better choice than drinking at home.

I think we will end up with fewer pubs but a larger number of good-quality pubs, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

Cooking Lager said...

Numbers are only part of the game, just look at the appeal of local pubs and ask is that a pub you would frequent and if not why not and who would frequent it? When I look at local pubs I see a fair number that either suit me or clearly suit someone. Wethy’s are clearly a price competitive value option, whilst still being respectably nice. Beer geek pubs cater for a significant niche of cask ale and world beer enthusiasts. Plenty of decent dining or traditional boozers doing well. I notice many pubs where I would never walk into and wonder who would? Just because I don’t get the appeal of a particular place doesn’t doom it, but I’m rarely surprised when I hear which local pubs have shut. Looking at the trend, the trend is clearly towards the gentrification of pubs, with smarter expensive establishments in prosperous areas, no pubs at the tatty end of town and pub going only the regular sport of the childless prosperous middle classes. Fewer better pubs maybe, but no longer a common shared experience and by default no longer to be defended by all social classes. Cheer up, at least Tesco have a bargain.

@zatytom said...

Cooking Lager: I think you've expressed a bit better what I was trying to say: Most of the closures are of pubs that have no appeal - not just to me - but to anyone really.

The "real community pub" in the less affluent area can do well if it has appeal - one of my locals which does live music, great and cheap beer, and friendly people is an estate pub on a decidedly not-affluent South London estate and seems to always be busy.

Sid Boggle said...

Let's not forget PubCos/REITs who seem to be equally happy whether they have viable pubs or real estate to sell...

RedNev said...

I think most of us have posted why pubs are closing, and I have seen little disagreement, although we all give different weighting to individual factors.

Yes, we'll end up with fewer pubs but we won't end up with a pub monoculture because different people have different ideas as to what a good pub is. And some of us relish the variety.

However Sid Boggle's point is correct, unfortunately.

Paul Garrard said...

Brilliant post. Agree with everything you said. I always think the analogy of the cinema with the advent of video (and sky) is a good example. Everybody thought cinema was dead - why would people leave their comfortable homes to sit in a sad flee-pit? Cinemas modernised, diversified and offered a wider programme. Bums returned to seats. Pubs could do the same. They need to up their game. Give punters something special and they will cross the threshold, double-dip permiting.

Beer Brewer said...

When people can get beer & drink at the comfort of their Homes why will they come to PUBS ?

Coxy said...

There are many reasons why pubs are closing , one I believe is that the training in large organisations like Whitbread and Bass was better than say Punch where a pub will be given to almost anyone with little or no training on running a pub and particularly customer services.
Also on a good note it is no longer acceptable for men with famillies to bugger of down the pub every night while their wifes stay in looking after the kids.
other things include mediums like this where we search easily for a better pub, Beer in the evening for its many faults has steered me away from poor pubs in general and i wouldn't visit Rochdale again without searching out The Baum.

Erlangernick said...

The smoking ban makes the missus and I spend MUCH more time in British pubs than we otherwise would. So there.

I hope you lot get this sorted before we emigrate thither. Keep the pubs, please. And tear out the carpeting!

Erlangernick said...

Sorry, I meant "Keep the nice pubs, please."

The Beer Nut said...

Carpet is one of the odd features of English pubs that I really like about them.

The Great London Beermat Famine, on the other hand...

Curmudgeon said...

I'm always doubtful about the "inside every fat man there’s a thin man trying to get out" argument, as there's a risk that you end up trimming off lots of lean meat as well. Obviously in any declining market it will be the weaker and less attractive competitors who go to the wall first, but potentially what you are left with is not necessarily a fitter, leaner pub trade but one that remains locked in a spiral of decline. The figures show that pubgoing plays a much less central role in the life of this country than it once did, and the concern is that in a generation pubs as we know them will become confined to a small, middle-class, urban rump.

The Beer Nut said...

a small, middle-class, urban rump
Phwoar!

Graeme said...

Sadly, I think Sid is correct too - though having pubs as real estate to sell and profit from can't be a sustainable business model, as (eventually - 2037?) you run out of pubs to sell...

jesusjohn said...

Coxy said 'Also on a good note it is no longer acceptable for men with famillies to bugger of down the pub every night while their wifes stay in looking after the kids.'

This point is *fundamental* to the decline of on-trade drinking and is not talked about often enough.

Nor is it - as once it was, and we forget at our peril that pubs were not quite the male-only preserves we often believe them to have been (cf. Corrie circa 1960) - considered ok for ma and pa to nip off for a couple of halves of milk stout and leave the seven year old in charge of the bairns.

These are very important changes - especially blokes' increasing willingness to do stuff in the home (and society's growing acceptance of men doing stuff in the home) - as this is a structural shift in the potential client base. The days of people nipping in to the pub pretty much every day - if only for a pint - cannot return.

The question is the degree to which the recession is accelerating closures beyond this natural adjustment. I'd guess it is, but you also have to factor in the social changes (nice homes, TV on demand, mind-boggling prices, more and more people commuting and feeling more like a lie down than a pint by the time they've fought their way home).

In short, I agree with most comments here. Pubs will still exist in 2037 - but the jack of all trades community pub for the squire and his farmers is probably not long for this world, more's the pity.

Tandleman said...

Fair points JJ and others. I reckon that there are a number of fundamental changes that affect pubs and the new man one is yet another and maybe one that isn't spoken about enough.

I doubt if we have a perfect storm though, but still we need to look for the good as well as the bad. There is demand in many guises and it is that vein, thinner though it is, that needs to be tapped.

Cooking Lager said...

Nobody has mentioned the gym. I and most people I know leave work and go to the gym. The lunch time pint, the after work pint seems to me to be a feature of a bygone era. Occasional and not regular. As for evenings, a night out is rare outside weekends. Why go out on a rainy grim Tuesday evening when there is work tomorrow? Most of the time I head out, if I am with the squeeze then a pint is an accompaniment to a meal. Maybe a restaurant or a food led pub. A pint after the cinema. Once a month I may go out with the lads and the activity is solely “having a pint”, but do people really go down pubs every night of the week in the 21st century? Do they not know what else life has to offer?

Tandleman said...

You go to the gym Cookie? So that's what muskles look like then.

Curmudgeon said...

It's worth recalling that beer production fell steadily through the 1950s and to some extent the pub trade was seen as facing a similar crisis, largely caused by the spread of television which was keeping pubgoers at home. However, pubs managed to reinvent themselves and over the next twenty years beer volumes rose by about two-thirds. That may even be worth of a post in its own right :-)

Re the gym – most pub closures seem to have occurred in areas where few of the inhabitants will have ever seen the inside of a gym.

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