Pete Brown is always worth reading, but I can’t help getting the impression that in this piece for the Morning Advertiser he meanders round a number of points without ever really managing to hit the nail on the head.
The basic premise is reasonable enough, that pubs need to look at what people actually want rather than just trying to find ways to market their existing offer more effectively. However, on a number of points he’s guilty of somewhat muddled thinking.
For a start, I don’t really get the point that pubs in locations which can support coffee shops are not opening until 4 or 5 pm. Yes, a lot of pubs do that during the week, but generally in locations where there is little or no passing trade. If a High Street can generate the trade for Starbucks or Caffé Nero, then it can do the same for pubs. Certainly round here the vast majority of town and city centre pubs open all day. It may be a London thing, but flicking through the London pages of the Good Beer Guide I can’t find many pubs that don’t open at least from noon. Perhaps it’s just a generalisation based on one particular pub that annoys him.
He then argues that pubs need to look at reinventing themselves to appeal to the type of customers who are using coffee shops. In fact, many have to some extent – how many town centre pubs now have clear plate-glass windows, sofas and pastel colours? The still pervasive idea that pubs are gloomy dives hidden behind frosted glass containing hacking old drunks ranting on about the Four Canals is now far more myth than reality. And, as Steve Wilson says in the comments, if you try to appeal to new customers, you have to be very careful that you don’t just end up alienating your existing ones. Plus, for various reasons, the trade derived from people “just popping in for a quick one” is now much diminished from what it once was.
He also comes up with the familiar canard about pubs overcharging for soft drinks. As I argued here, nobody goes to pubs primarily because of their choice of soft drinks, the demand is highly inelastic and in any case pub soft drink prices are broadly comparable with “family restaurants”. It may well be in pubs’ interest to offer a better range of soft drinks (or anything else), and it may also be a good idea to avoid prices so high they give the impression of ripping customers off. But cheaper soft drinks won’t bring floods of new customers into pubs, and if you cut soft drink prices, what are you going to charge more for? Beer?
I get the impression from this piece that Pete is drawing lessons from the Inner London pub market and seeking to apply them to the rest of the country, whereas in reality the way the two work is becoming increasingly divorced.