Sunday, 19 December 2010

An ebbing tide floats no boats

Last Friday in the pub was one of those classic “setting the world to rights” nights, and one of the subjects we got on to was pub closures. The proposition was advanced that the closure of failing pubs would serve to make the remaining ones stronger. Now, I’m the last person in the world to advocate flogging a dead horse by trying to keep fundamentally unviable pubs in business, but I don’t think it’s quite as a simple as that, as it ignores the question of how the demand for pubs works.

If we were talking about petrol stations, the idea would be entirely correct, as the demand for road travel is pretty much independent of the intensity of petrol stations, provided that people can get to at least one. But much of pubgoing is dependent on the actual presence of pubs in locations where people live, work or choose to socialise. Also, pubs are not offering a homogenous product, but a distinctive and individual experience. For every pub that closes, there will be a proportion of its customers who simply stop going to pubs rather than moving to one down the road, and a segment of society for whom pubgoing ceases to be something that is an option in their normal routine.

Of course pubs will continue to close in the face of declining demand, but to imagine that closures will do much to improve the viability of pubs that remain open demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the market works. A good metaphor would be that, as the tide goes out, the fact that some boats are grounded doesn’t mean that those still floating are more buoyant.

And I have made the point before that areas where pubgoing remains strong have lots of pubs, whereas the presence of closed pubs tends to indicate an area where the pubgoing habit has fallen off a cliff.


  1. To be fair, the boat metaphor is wonderful, but it can also serve to reinforce the counter argument.

    If the tide going out happens to be in a harbour filled with fishing boats, those left buoyant are certain to make more money that day than those left beached, and if nothing else, this at least would spread a message that positioning yourself behind the tidal point is better for business.

    It could even be argued that those fisherman choosing to drop anchor near the beach should have shown better judgement, or at least been better informed, in the first place.

    Having said all this, one wouldn't want those same fishermen to be put out of business as a result, but rather they should be given an opportunity to use this beaching incident as a means to assess, learn, adapt, and go on to flourish.

    It's the lack of this learning opportunity that is often the missing piece in an age where things progress and decay so very quickly.

  2. The BIG danger to pubs is simply more and more people are staying away and learning to live with it.
    Why pay extra money for a pub pint where you are told to stand outside in the rain for a fag or sit inside in what is effectively a restaurant.
    The pub trade is driving away customers weekly. I've seen 3 close within months and they deserved it.

  3. Pongy ale and arguing the toss over pub closures versus a quiet night in, central heating on full blast, cuddle with the squeeze & a cheeky vimto.

    You do make going into a pub sound appealing, though.

  4. We have to get used to the fact that social interaction has changed. Many, especially the young, are content to sit at home and interact via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter rather than go out and have face to face encounters with others. Did I not read somewhere recently about four young women came into a pub, ordered drinks and then spent the time texting friends or talking on their mobile phones rather than chatting among themselves.
    Add to this the ridiculously high prices charged by most pubs compared to prices charged by supermarkets, and the overkill nature of the smoking ban, then you have the perfect recipe for the continued decline of the pub. To alleviate this problem requires a multi faceted approach, but who is capable of devising one and advocating it? Certainly not those self-styled champions of the pub CAMRA, for whom walking and chewing gum would cause brain seizure.


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