Saturday 26 February 2011

Who wants customers?

A few weeks I reported on the massive decline in on-trade beer sales over the past thirty years. Now, it is my belief that this is overwhelmingly due to social and legislative changes affecting the pub trade, and that indeed the average standard of service, food and drink in pubs is considerably higher now than it was thirty years ago. When pubs were thriving, there were plenty of poor pubs about.

But, the other night in the pub, this subject was being discussed and the point was made that maybe a substantial part of the decline was due to the fact that pubs had failed to move with the times and weren’t giving customers what they wanted. You can point to the example of Wetherspoon’s, who are doing very well and opening new pubs in an overall declining market. That’s undoubtedly true, and maybe without Spoons the trade as a whole would be in even more difficulty. But the Wetherspoon formula only works in particular urban locations with heavy footfall, and wouldn’t be appropriate for the vast majority of closed sites. The Four Heatons, for example, would never work as a Spoons. Wetherspoons have also burnt their fingers in a number of locations where they have misjudged the local market, so it’s clearly not a magic formula for all pubs.

A slightly different example is The Greystones, an inter-wars Enterprise Inns pub in suburban Sheffield where the lease has been taken over by up-and-coming microbrewery Thornbridge. Looking at it on Google StreetView, in its previous incarnation as The Highcliffe, it looks like any number of pubs up and down the country that have closed. The surrounding area looks like typical C1C2 mixed suburbia, not some yuppie enclave. Yet, apparently, having been taken on by people who really care about what they’re doing, it’s now going great guns. Read about it on Pete Brown’s blog here.

I’ve never been there, so can’t offer my own judgment, but from the sound of it I’d be more than happy to have it as my local. But, on the other hand, there are large sections of the pubgoing community that it probably wouldn’t appeal to. I’d like to think that pubs like our recently-demolished Greyhound could have been revitalised by the Greystones treatment. But to what extent is it really generating new business, as opposed to simply redistributing it from other pubs?

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. Even if every pub in an area was a Spoons or a Greystones, I doubt whether overall trade would increase by more than a couple of percentage points. And one of the oft-advanced examples of “moving with the times” – the general admission of children – is to many longstanding pubgoers excruciatingly offputting.

Oh, and what a pity they had to take the pic of the Greystones while it was still in primer...


  1. It's interesting for me to read this post as it's from around the time I'd started getting properly interested in beer. I lived in Hendon at the time and sought out Thornbridge in London. It's novel now to see it referred to as up and coming - it's become a bit mainstay, less interesting and overtaken by hundreds of others who probably won't do as well.
    Just curious - was this post before or after the contretemps (or whatever it was. He blocked you didn't he?) with Pedro Broon?

    1. Yes, Thornbridge seem to have gone from up-and-coming to old hat in a few short years. There are a lot of mutterings that Jaipur isn't what it was, but is it more the case that it has been overtaken by more extreme-flavoured beers?

      My little spat with Pedro Broon was in 2014, due to him telling blatant lies for political effect. Mind you, I did call him a rude word, so you can't really blame him. It's a pity that someone who talks so much sense about beer talks so much crap about politics.


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