Last Friday in the pub was one of those classic “setting the world to rights” nights, and one of the subjects we got on to was pub closures. The proposition was advanced that the closure of failing pubs would serve to make the remaining ones stronger. Now, I’m the last person in the world to advocate flogging a dead horse by trying to keep fundamentally unviable pubs in business, but I don’t think it’s quite as a simple as that, as it ignores the question of how the demand for pubs works.
If we were talking about petrol stations, the idea would be entirely correct, as the demand for road travel is pretty much independent of the intensity of petrol stations, provided that people can get to at least one. But much of pubgoing is dependent on the actual presence of pubs in locations where people live, work or choose to socialise. Also, pubs are not offering a homogenous product, but a distinctive and individual experience. For every pub that closes, there will be a proportion of its customers who simply stop going to pubs rather than moving to one down the road, and a segment of society for whom pubgoing ceases to be something that is an option in their normal routine.
Of course pubs will continue to close in the face of declining demand, but to imagine that closures will do much to improve the viability of pubs that remain open demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the market works. A good metaphor would be that, as the tide goes out, the fact that some boats are grounded doesn’t mean that those still floating are more buoyant.
And I have made the point before that areas where pubgoing remains strong have lots of pubs, whereas the presence of closed pubs tends to indicate an area where the pubgoing habit has fallen off a cliff.