A major problem for the pub trade is the growing proportion of young people who have chosen not to drink alcohol at all. In response to this, a recent report has said that 70% of “Generation Z” believe that the licensed trade needs to make itself “more inviting” to those who do not drink alcohol. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt given that it is sponsored by a coffee company, but it does make an important point.
Clearly it makes commercial sense for pubs to widen their appeal so that they can be more inclusive of non-drinkers. Customers are increasingly likely to consist of mixed groups of drinkers and abstainers. This can be achieved by providing higher-quality tea and coffee and soft drinks, offering food and putting on events like quizzes and live music. And, to be honest, they have been doing these things to a greater or lesser extent throughout my drinking career. It’s nothing new or exactly a startling revelation.
However, there’s an important caveat here. The core purpose of pubs is, and always has been, socialising centred around the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Yes, over the decades they have needed to evolve and change in various ways, but that fundamental purpose remains unchanged. If nobody drank alcohol, pubs wouldn’t exist. Non-drinkers may enjoy various activities and services provided by pubs, but they wouldn’t be there in the first place if they weren’t there for drinkers. It’s rather like non-alcoholic beer – it wouldn’t exist if alcoholic beer didn’t, and it is only there to mirror to some extent the taste and experience of drinking alcoholic beer.
If they go too far down the road of changing their offer, pubs may well find themselves evolving into something entirely different. Some pubs have in effect turned themselves into restaurants, and it’s a very fine line when they actually cross over to that status, while others have metamorphosed into what are essentially live music venues.
It has to be questioned to what extent all this diversification is actually going to bring new customers into pubs. It may make non-drinkers happier when they are there, but will it encourage them to visit more often? It’s rather like the smoking ban, where prior to July 2007 many people said that one reason they didn’t go to pubs was that they were too smoky. Well, magic the smoke away, and they say that on their half-yearly visit that the atmosphere is much more pleasant, and it’s so much better now that those rough people are no longer there. But they don’t actually go any more than they did before. It’s a classic case of “revealed preference” – you have to judge people by what they actually do, not by what they say they would like.
This kind of call is nothing new, either. Back in 1998, I wrote:
You often read today that pubs will have to appeal to new groups of customers to ensure their long-term survival, but the examples given are usually people whose visits to the pub would at best only be occasional, and whose allegiance would be very fickle.And later in 2011, I said:
At the end of the day, a pub is still a pub, and its fundamental raison d’ être remains the same. It can’t “move with the times” by turning itself into something else. If people no longer want to go to pubs, no amount of wine dispensers, crèches, coffee-makers and wi-fi hotspots will make any difference. And one of the oft-advanced examples of “moving with the times” – the general admission of children – is to many longstanding pubgoers excruciatingly offputting.The reason that the pub trade has declined so much over the past twenty or so years is essentially because, due to a combination of social and legislative change, the demand for their core product has fallen. Obviously they can’t just turn their face against meeting other needs, but there is a limit to how far they can go down that road. It may be regrettable, but the fortunes of the pub trade are closely linked to the proportion of people in society who enjoy drinking alcohol in a social setting. And one of the most successful forms of “diversification” for pubs has been to metamorphose into convenience stores...