Sunday, 17 July 2016

We shall overcome

Last week, there was an utterly gobsmacking piece in the Morning Advertiser on How pubs overcame the hardest decade in the trade’s history. Now, hang on, but I’d hardly say that experiencing a decline in beer sales of 36% represents “overcoming” anything. Pubs haven’t fought back and won, they have been defeated in a series of bloody battles, not helped by many industry leaders fighting on the other side, and have had to accept a much diminished role in life.

Of course some pubs can still thrive: it’s not a uniform effect. But the range of locations where they can succeed, and the customer base they attract, are both now much narrower than they were ten years ago. Try telling the residents of Parr or Longdendale that pubs have “emerged stronger” and they will laugh in your face. Tandleman reports here that the previous ten pubs on his local estate of Langley have now come down to one or none, depending on how you draw the boundaries. It’s reminiscent of Spinal Tap, who responded to the charge that they were playing in much smaller venues by claiming that their appeal had become more selective.

The section on the smoking ban is particularly breathtaking. I reproduce the whole thing below.

It just reeks of snobbery, that pub owners have managed to replace scuzzy smoking customers with smarter, more upmarket ones who are more likely to order food. But, if you run a brewery, you’ve also lost a lot of customers for your beer. And the comment about the ban attracting more women is ridiculous when you consider that a higher proportion of women now smoke than men. Plus it would have been easy to increase pubs’ appeal to women and families (if indeed that is what has happened) by creating separate areas rather than banishing smokers to the nether circles of hell.

The comment by our local brewery director William Robinson that “the pub trade has evolved to become stronger and more inclusive” is particularly egregious. This, of course, is the company that in recent years has happily shed about a fifth of its estate, mostly the more basic boozers, and is currently gleefully engaged in wrecking a growing number of those that remain. Frankly, I’ve never read such deluded, patronising drivel in my life. It’s not my style, but I’m sorely tempted to employ a four-letter word. William, you are a disgrace to your industry. Your grandfather, Sir John Robinson, will be turning in his grave.

The pub trade continues to be in serious long-term decline. And it really doesn’t help when senior industry figures seem to believe that’s a good thing. They really should stop smirking – the Prohibition Train is heading their way before too long.

16 comments:

  1. You need to read more broadsheet business news and less Daily Mail. It's standard annual report stuff. The decline is all environmental and not our fault. I enjoy clothes retailers blaming the weather, as a personal favourite. However this means we a leaner and fitter and ready for an exciting future. Of course they are. They get to inflate the share price not suppress it.

    Mr Robinson is not just in the business of flogging hot dinners to nice middle class people and pints of tasteless bitter to scrotes like you. He is in the business of flogging pub tenancies to the middle aged redundant with cheque and a dream. Therefore he will say pubs have had a torrid time, but we are now leaner and fitter and more responsive to the needs of our new customers and its all an exciting future. The message is come and take on one of our dumpy pubs in a rough part of Manchester and good luck selling over priced beer. He's not daft. He got value for money from that private education paid for by his Dads alkie punters.

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    1. But there's a glee in William Robinson's comments - and those of Jonathon Swaine - that goes well beyond boilerplate City bullshit.

      You do have to wonder whether Robinson's are still interested in running boozers at all, given the fact they can't provide a decent pricing package to their tenants. The newly-refurbished Bobby Peel on Edgeley (Punch) is currently doing Fosters and John Smiths at £2 a pint, all day, every day. However nice a pub it is, how can the Armoury compete offering Unicorn at £2.90?

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    2. I liked the bit about "getting ahead of the curve" - in other words, the smoking ban enabled them to stop appealing to the people who were actually going to their pubs, and start appealing to another group of people who aren't going to their pubs yet. All we need now is for that appeal to people who aren't there yet to succeed.

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  2. Excellent read. Clearly Robinsons quite happy to lose pubs that defined Stockport like Spread Eagle and Tiviot as beer sales don't make same margin as wine and food in the Red Bull and their rural estate.

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    1. To be fair, the Tiviot had to go because of structural problems. Also the gents' utterly reeked!

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  3. I rarely comment on smoking these days except, as always, to say the reason I hate it is the stink. But I will make two observations. If pubs had embraced non smoking areas more wholeheartedly, rather than just tokenism they would have had a stronger argument in resisting the ban. They simply ignored the oncoming train then were surprised when it hit them. I remember well going in (rare) non smoking rooms in pubs and a smoker would come in and light up. If you complained, nine times out of ten he would just shrug and carry on as would barstaff.

    Secondly this wasn't a ban in smoking in pubs but in public places indoors. Should all that be reversed too? Buses? Trains?

    Pubs are what they are and if events overtake them then they will fail and not all events can realistically be resisted. And of course Mr Robinson et al will spin it positively. As Cookie says.

    Finally, JW Lees - analogous to Robinsons in many ways - made record profits last year. You may well have less dingy back street (or equivalent) Lees houses, but plenty survive and many, like my two locals the Tandle Hill Tavern and the Ship, both do rather well in their own sphere, appealing to their own crowd. Neither sell food. The vaults and lounges in the more suburban Rose of Lancaster and Lancashire Fold are packed. It can still work as you readily admit elsewhere.

    As my old boss at work used to say. "We are where we are. Let's make the most of it."

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    1. There was far more non-smoking provision in pubs pre-ban than you and your antismoking mates will admit, albeit often not in the kind of pubs you favoured. Every Wetherspoons, for a start. I did a quick survey on RedNev's blog that showed that about 45% of 2007 GBG entries (the last one pre-ban) in Cheshire were shown as having some non-smoking provision. And, of course, given that non-smoking areas for wet trade tended to be little used, each individual pub that installed one stood to gain nothing, even if it might have helped the trade as a whole.

      Even before 2007, the vast majority of food-led pubs were mostly or at least partially non-smoking.

      Also, before the ban, smoking had already been widely restricted on buses, trains, stations, workplaces etc. It didn't need legislation. But I really don't see why a workplace shouldn't be allowed to provide an indoor smoking room for smoke breaks.

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    2. In 2005 Wetherspoons said they were planning on making all their pubs non-smoking; within a year this was dropped.

      In March 2006 The Independent reported:
      The pubs group JD Wetherspoon has shelved plans to turn its entire chain non-smoking until the Government ban comes into force, after seeing a steep drop in sales in venues that have been converted.

      And CAMRA still thought it was a good idea. It may well be that more lager than RA drinkers smoke but they were the majority that kept most (non-food) pubs viable and they could get a very similar product from the supermarket.

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  4. Petersgate tap17 July 2016 at 11:08

    Interestingly when I was looking for premises I contacted Robinsons estate dept as they have 3 empty and boarded up premises in Stockport centre. I was told " all these are closed and THEREFORE (I emphasise the interesting word) not for sale .Almost smacks of land banking or reducing the amount of opposition they face.

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    1. I know the ones you mean - my understanding is that they have plans for some of them, if not all, although they're dragging their feet in doing anything about it.

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  5. I can't claim to know much about Robinson's in particular but I'm not as sure as you that Sir John Robinson, or at least his contemporaries, would see much to object to here.

    Lots of brewery records the other half and I have looked at in the last year include discussions about pubs in the inter- and post-war periods and, for obvious reasons, most seemed fairly keen to ditch small pubs in favour of bigger ones which they viewed as more efficient. To a certain extent big pubs with food, and an overall reduction in the number of licences, were pushed by temperance/government but the brewers seem to have been quite happy to embrace it once they realised it meant one beer delivery rather than five, one manager to deal with rather than multiple sets of tenants, and a general boost for the respectability of the trade. (They could be as snobby as anyone.)

    Insofar as there's much evidence of breweries fighting to defend or preserve back street boozers, it's usually couched in terms of a mercenary desire to maintain the licence, either to keep competitors at bay or with a view to transferring it to a bigger, better pub down the line.

    (I'm summarising very crudely -- don't ask me for footnotes at this stage...)

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    1. Yes, but Sir John Robinson and others of his generation were always very keen to keep their mash-tuns going. Selling food in "improved" pubs was another string to their bow, not a replacement for wet trade. I can't see him being remotely happy about losing so much beer volume, and he'd tell his grandson off for suggesting it might be a good thing.

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  6. This article in the Morning Advertiser is indeed atrocious. A heavy-handed piece of legislation is imposed on everyone without exception, with harsh penalties for defying it - and once again, because people do the only thing they can possibly do, which is to try to make the best of it, it's portrayed as a success.

    Pre-ban, many pubs tried to introduce nonsmoking rooms or go completely nonsmoking, but had to backtrack because the demand wasn't really there. I think this was because (a) people weren't as bothered by smoke as the antismoking brigade wanted them to be, especially as ventilation was improving by leaps and bounds, and (b) in a social place like a pub or club, most people want to be where most of the people are - 'where the action is' - whether there's smoking or not. I've noticed in European countries which allow smoking rooms, many smokers just go in for a quick fag and then go back into the main area, because they don't want to feel left out. It was the same with nonsmokers before the ban.

    Finally, why can't people get it through their heads that a pub is not a 'public place'? It's not publicly owned or funded, and no one is forced to go in. Sure there should be house rules - about smoking, or opening hours, or dogs, or kids - but they should be up to the landlord, not the government.

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  7. I don't like Anonymous quotes as a rule, but that really hits the mark. Most folk weren't bothered, or moved to a place where they wouldn't be, and (in my experience) smokers made pubs and people wanted the banter.

    Great "Finally" too

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  8. It would be good if some of the self-styled "pub lovers" who supported the ban in 2007 had the decency to admit now that it has proved to be very damaging to the pub trade, and, with the benefit of hindsight, some sort of compromise solution would have been preferable.

    As long as they refuse to do that, then anything they say about "protecting pubs" just comes across as weasel words.

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  9. Am i alone in finding Robinsons and JW Lees very bland nowadays ?

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