Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Sour grapes, bottled

One of the most significant changes brought about by the 2005 Licensing Act was making it much easier to open new bars, as there was no longer any requirement to demonstrate “need”. The bandwagon was maybe a bit slow to start rolling, but once we emerged from the recession we have seen café-bars, wine bars, craft beer bars and micropubs springing up all over the place. It’s maybe something that wasn’t really expected, but it’s rapidly transforming the drinking landscape.

One particular variety that is proving increasingly popular is the combined bottle shop and bar, of which we now have three just in my neck of the woods in the Heatons area of Stockport. The one pictured is Heaton Hops. I have to say they’re not my top choice of drinking spots, but that’s entirely due to the lack of space and of comfortable seating, and there’s nothing wrong with the welcome or the beer quality. They all appear to be doing well and are a welcome increase in choice and diversity.

However, it seems that not everyone is quite so happy. The Publican’s Morning Advertiser recently published an article entitled Are bottle shops a bigger threat than supermarkets for pubs? Surely a classic example of a “Question to which the answer is No”! It quotes one licensee as saying that a bottle shop was “wiping the floor” with nearby pubs. “It sets a precedent. Anyone in any town can take a shop and think they can turn it into a bar as well.” Isn’t that sort of the point?

He went on to suggest that the said venue didn’t even have the proper licence, which really does smack of hysteria. Yes, an off-licence can offer small tasters to customers, but as soon as they start selling drink for consumption on the premise they need an on-licence. If any tried to trade without one, the council would rapidly come down on them like a ton of bricks.

This all comes across as just a case of sour grapes. If you’re faced with competition, the best response is to up your own game rather than moaning about how life is unfair. I’m not convinced that they’re significantly undercutting pubs – indeed the ones in my local area charge much the same as nearby pubs, if not a bit more. If you’re worried about price competition, then surely Wetherspoons are a much bigger threat.

And, in any case, small wet-only bars only compete with pubs across a small range of their offer. They don’t provide food, music or TV sport. To the pub trade in general they’re no more than a pinprick on an elephant’s backside, but some people are always looking for someone else to blame. There’s also nothing to stop pubs selling bottles to take home and offering carryouts of draught beer. Maybe it’s time that side of the trade made a comeback.

11 comments:

  1. The slow decline of pubs started when the law was changed to allow other outlets to sell alcohol (early 1960s?); so a reversal of that would revive pubs like nothing else could.

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  2. Drinking habits are changing - whatever keeps people out and in company is far better than kept inside behind locked doors.

    From some research I've done, when it comes to planning permission it is always best to describe a new alcohol venture as a "Tap" or "Bottle Shop" as this seems to be more gentle than say "pub" or "bar" and doesn't seem to have as much impact should people get all temperent about it.

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  3. I went to the new Samuel Oldknow in Marple last night - while it's a "bar and bottle shop" the shop bit is really an aside and it'a very attractive two room bar (with brand new fixed bench seating too...) and a very welcome addition to the Marple area.

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  4. There are a couple of these bottle shop/bars around here. I've dropped in a couple of times for a beer before going somewhere else. The one thing I would say that differentiates them from run of the mill pubs is the welcome. Every single time I've found the owner and also many of the customers welcoming and willing to have a conversation. The same cannot be said of many pubs.

    I really don't see them as competing with existing pubs. They are far more expensive for starters, and the range of beers they sell tends to be mostly on the "craft" side. Nobody is going to go into one of these places and order a bottle of Banks Mild.

    However, complaints about competition from pubs are just ridiculous. Since all you need to sell the sort of beer they offer is a fridge and some glasses, there is nothing to stop pubs offering exactly the same range of "craft" bottled beers if they think that is what people want.

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    1. It's worth pointing out (although it doesn't change the argument) that the ones near me, plus the one in Marple that John refers to, offer draught beer as well as bottles.

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  5. The decline of the highstreet has resulted in many shops available for nominal rents and I think breaks on business rates. Be interesting what happens to these places if the high street revives as a shopping destination or succeeds in the change to a leisure destination. Either way rents and taxes will eventually rise.

    As for their relative merits. I'm with you, I find them cramped, uncomfortable and with only one pisser I can ruin everyones evening after a Spoons curry. The saving grace is often you find wife beater strength grog quite cheap.

    Do like the fact that supermarkets offering none middle class none CAMRA approved grog cheaply are pub killers but so long as you flog CAMRA approved grog to the middle classes it compliments pubs and the competition raises the game!

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    1. The local ones aren't exactly in prime shopping locations. And, given that the demand for shops selling stuff, as opposed to services, is likely to continue to decline, I don't think they'll be under much financial pressure.

      And the competition is surely from the on-trade element, not the off-trade.

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    2. Charity shops with £1 a week rents have been going for years as the only way to fill the empty premises. Maybe these box bars will go for years too with nominal rents. Who knows the future?

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    3. I reckon there are some pubs still going years after the smoking ban simply because nobody's interested in turning them into shops - a couple on Castle Street, Edgeley spring to mind.

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  6. I saw that article, Curmudgeon, about licensees moaning about micropubs and bottle shops. The combined capacity of the four we have in Southport is less than either of our Wetherspoons. If the loss of such small numbers is seriously affecting the local pub trade, I can only conclude the customer base in the area concerned must be tiny.

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  7. Many pub operators seem to be so insecure about their business that they sieze every opportunity to shriek about new or old competition, instead of looking at ways to take advantage. Too many of them still think opening the doors is all they have to do to make their business work.

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