Monday, 7 November 2011

Retreating into a niche

Stockport town centre, depending on how you define it, currently has about 30 pubs open and trading. There are four or five standing closed and boarded and realistically unlikely to open as pubs, and a further ten or so that have closed their doors forever over the past ten or fifteen years and been demolished or converted to alternative use. A pattern that is fairly typical of large towns up and down the country.

For various reasons, Stockport isn’t renowned for its lively night-life and, being honest, although a few do well, many of those 30 are existing on very thin pickings. Two that are thriving, though, are the well-known specialist beer pubs, the Crown and the Magnet, which are only about four hundred yards apart near the bus station. Indeed, to get to either from the bus station you have to pass the very prominently-sited, and firmly closed and boarded, George.

Both these pubs are to be congratulated on doing well in a declining market, but it would be a mistake from that to conclude that a lot of other pubs would benefit from adopting that particular trading format. They are catering well for a substantial, but still ultimately limited, market of beer enthusiasts. Indeed it could be said of the customers of the Crown and Magnet that they are people for whom going to pubs and sampling different beers is a specific hobby that they pursue, rather than just something they do as part of the normal routines of everyday life.

So it could well be that in future the overall pub market continues to shrink substantially year-on-year, but the specialist beer pubs continue to thrive by catering specifically for beer enthusiasts. And those beer enthusiasts, and even people who just like the atmosphere of pubs in general, will increasingly gravitate towards those pubs as they alone will offer the choice of beers, and the congenial company, that they are looking for.

I have written in the past of the future of the pub trade (or the “wet” pub trade anyway) being one of increasingly retreating into a small urban niche. And you can see it happening before your own eyes in Stockport.

11 comments:

  1. Just an obvious reminder !
    When my local shut down after
    146 years of trading it shut down for NON SMOKERS too.
    So much for the much vaunted "BIG SOCIETY"

    A big thankyou to all the heroes who sat back and did nowt.

    The Ferrryman

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  2. Anon: you've recently called yourself the Ferryman and the Watcher. Pretentious - toi?

    And compared to those who did nowt, what did you actually do? Other than make snide comments of course.

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  3. Stockport's pubs are suffering also because of the town's consistent inability to attract visitors from it's wealthier suburbs to it's night time economy. No one would pretend that the traditional ale houses would all of a sudden be bursting with golfing club types from Bramhall and arty trendies from the Heatons, but the lack of decent restaurants and the remaining dregs of the yoof bingers will do nothing to bring in new customers. It is also fair to say that a good number of licensees in some of the traditional and indeed historic pubs could do more to smarten up their pubs and bring in new drinkers. I am not talking about major overhauls but simply higher standards of cleaning and hygiene. Some of us may find the toilet facilities in the Queens Head, the Railway or the old Red Bull earthy and characterful but many , especially female, visitors would not.

    It could of course be worse - passed through Cheetham Hill over the weekend and vitually all the pubs have gone.

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  4. I've posted before about Stockport becoming a dead zone in the evenings here. The lack of even half-decent restaurants is a major problem.

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  5. Martin, Cambridge8 November 2011 at 17:34

    I'm taking a day off Friday especially so I can have a night out sampling Stockport's "proper" pubs - e.g. Pineapple, Railway (on the A6), Swan, Queens Head.

    I don't much care if I only drink Hatters and Sam Smiths, but I will be disappointed if they're too quiet as a result of the ban or other rational of your choice. I can drink odd but inconsistent micro beers in Cambridge or London.

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  6. Of the pubs you mention, the Queen's Head is likely to be reasonably busy, but the Pineapple will be fairly quiet and the Swan with Two Necks is often very quiet in the evenings.

    Trade in the Railway seems to depend on live music or other events - we went in there on a Friday night stagger in the summer and it was virtually deserted.

    Traditional pubs that are likely to be busy are the Armoury, Red Bull, Boar's Head and Arden Arms.

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  7. Stokport is following the same path as St. Albans. We used to have a huge number of pubs in St. Albans until the "Watneyisation" of the '60s and'70s which saw two and three bar pubs turned into one bar outlets. This move resulted in pubs catering for one type of customer; worker's pubs, youth pubs, sports bars, gastro pubs, wine bars - you name it. As soon as a pub gets such a reputation it canot cast it off very easily, hence diminishing trade leading to eventual closure. As supply decreases, relative demand increases. In the last decade or so we have seen many new outlets open in St. Albans. A brand new Wetherspoons and two or three large pubs aiming at the youth market - all well run and busy (the MacDonalds' of The Trade). The smaller successful pubs are those which can attract the beer enthusiast (as you say in your article) or those which offer something to mark them out of the crowd. Sadly, I see more closures of traditional pubs and more of the corporate outlets opening in the future. So I support as many small pubs in St. Albans as I can, an enjoyable chore. I do hope that Stockport pubs find a way to survive, for it is the old fashioned, back street pubs which are the lifeblood of their community, they are the glue which binds all Englishmen. Hic.

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  8. Stockport has largely escaped an invasion of corporate clone pubs - we have a Wetherspoons, and that's about it. Rather the small, traditional pubs have steadily dropped, one by one, and each one, by the time it closed, was so run down and devoid of customers that you thought "probably for the best".

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  9. Here in Bristol, the city centre pubs are doing OK. Yes, we have Wetherspoons, Slug & Lettuce etc but the small boozers are mostly thriving, largely through real ale as you say is the case in Stockport. The middle class outer suburbs also have decent pubs although one or two have become so "gastro" as to not really qualify as pubs in the true sense of the word. However, in the inner suburbs and the outer working-class areas, there has been a big decline. A lot of the places which have shut were dives with major crime/drug problems and are probably no great loss but others were decent locals.

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  10. Bristol benefits from the "big city hub" effect which you can also see in places like Manchester and Nottingham. But it doesn't percolate down to places the size of Stockport. Cross the Severn and you'll find pubs in the centre of Cardiff doing far better than those in Newport.

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  11. Not sure about the "big city hub" point when it comes to Bristol. Manchester is surrounded by places which are proper towns in their own right and has good public transport, whereas Bristol has no close towns (other than Bath which has its own nightlife) and probably the worst public transport in the UK. Bristol is pretty self-contained, if not insular. Nevertheless, the town centre pubs seem to be doing well as do some of the suburban ones. My local was rammed last Saturday: a girls' school reunion, a regimental reunion and two football teams, in addition to the usual regulars. You couldn't move in there. OK, this was exceptional but on Wednesdays through to Saturdays, the place is usually very busy. I was wondering if there could be some kind of North/South divide going on but having said this, when I go to my home town of Wrexham, which is hardly in the South, the local pub is usually busy. A fair few in the centre of town have closed but most of these shut years before the smoking ban, probably because they were crap. I agree that the ban has put the tin lid on many pubs but there must be other reasons why so many are going to the wall.

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