Thursday, 24 March 2011

Still too many pubs?

Drinks journalist Andrew Pring has controversially claimed that, despite the closures of recent years, Britain still has far too many pubs and about a quarter of those that remain are fundamentally unviable.

He said: “We will still lose many thousands of pubs, regardless of what the government does. We are an over-pubbed nation. The pub’s USP has long since disappeared. All the technological developments have worked to the detriment of the pub. There is a whole generation who have grown up who don’t see the pub as a place to socialise.”

And, sad to say, he’s probably right, although of course it could equally be presented as a lack of pubgoers, not a surfeit of pubs. If supply exceeds demand, the imbalance can only be resolved in one of two ways.

The crisis of the pub trade is often presented, not least by Mike Benner in the linked article, as essentially a crisis of supply, caused by evil grasping pub companies, high-handed council planners and restrictive covenants. As one commenter says, “A free of tie option with open market rent for almost 2/3’s of all the pubs in the country will allow the feathers of the sector to regrow and stand a chance of flying again.”

However, surely in reality the problem is that at present there simply isn’t sufficient demand to sustain the existing pub stock, and nobody explains how supply-side improvements would magically increase demand by 25%. I would say that a good quarter – maybe even a third – of the currently trading pubs in areas I’m familiar with are not viable in the long term.


  1. Saying there isn't the demand to sustain the present stock of pubs assumes that the only reason why people don't go to pubs is because they don't wish to any more. I don't believe, and I know you don't either, that there is only one single reason for the decline in pubgoing. Some of the reasons are not irreversible.

    Andrew Pring says that there's no silver bullet, which is stating the obvious, I'd have thought, and scarcely an original insight. The danger is that his kind of "respected" view might give politicians the excuse to decide to write pubs off as being beyond help, so they might as well keep the beer tax escalator and the pub tie after all.

    For me, Mike Benner's response is more convincing, and his statement that talented entrepreneurs aren't attracted to the industry because of PubCos is spot on.

    IF PubCos are leasing pubs to illiterate and innumerate licensees, then that merely shows even more how inept they are by entrusting the public outlets of their businesses to such people. But I think Mr Pring has grossly exaggerated for effect.

  2. The reason Pubcos are leasing pubs to the illiterate/innumerate simply because they are scraping the barrel of potential suckers. They are desperate too. Benner's response concerning the talented being kept away because of the pubcos is alos true. Only a penniless fool or a deluded dreamer would take on a pubco tenancy under current market conditions. Anyone with capital or talent would buy somewhere first.

    I broadly agree with Pring and it's not difficult to forecast which local pubs will be next.

  3. I did a post here asking the question as to what extent the decline of the pub trade was due to pubs themselves being poorly run and not providing what customers wanted, as opposed to being caused by wider social and legislative factors. But nobody commented on that :-|

  4. Overwhelmed by your sagacity, perhaps?

  5. Read that one slightly differently at the time. It didnt seem to emphasise the lack of business skills being a major factor in pub decline.

    Thge main theme of the post seemed to be that not every pub can turn itself into something else and the Greystones/Wetherspoons don't appeal to everyone.

  6. It wasn't really specifically about the lack of business skills but about whether the pub trade as a whole could be given a significant boost by being more in tune with customer demands. If all pubs were as good as the top 25%, how much more business would that draw in across the board?

    I have to say that, while around here there are still plenty of good independent brewery tied houses, and a few good "free houses", I struggle to think of any conventional pub company outlets that I would give the time of day to, and it is predominantly these that are closing.

  7. Yes I would agree , The Norfolk in Marple Bridge is boarded up, the Spring Gardens in Compstall is closed again, as is the Lane Ends on Glossop Road. The Oddfellows hangs on but only just and virtually everything else is Robbies !!

    I am sure though that The White Lion is Disley is a pubco pub but you would not think so - 8 Handpumps and well kept.

  8. The industry contributed to the decline in pub trade through sheer greed. Over the last 20 years there had been a huge increase in the number of pubgoers who weren't drinking alcohol. Family groups with children and many women wanted soft drinks, water, tea and coffee. The greater acceptance of the drink driving laws also gave rise to the dedicated driver who also had to stick to soft drinks. Surprise, surprise the price of squash, cola, J20 type drinks and hot beverages has rocketed as the pubs saw another opportunity to fleece the customers. The typical solo drinker supping a few pints on two or three nights a weeek will probably be fairly immune to price rises but for a family a pint, coffee and a few cokes pushing £10 a round before you've even thought about food makes a strong case for staying at home with supermarket booze and a take-away.

  9. I'm never remotely convinced by that one. Nobody goes to a pub specifically to drink soft drinks - those drinking soft drinks are by definition there for another reason, and therefore aren't going to be swayed too much by the price. Also, in the vast majority of cases they'll only be having the one, and will only be occasional visitors.

    There seems to be a misguided belief in some quarters that pubs should charge the same price as Tesco for soft drinks, even though, for good reason, they patently don't for either beer or meals.

  10. I hardly go to the pub with my family at the weekend now as I did once. It costs a fortune. In the summer, a BBQ with some good beer from my vast stock, a bottle of wine for the missus and coke from Tescos is a winner. £2 in a pub for a glass of draught cola is really taking the p*ss.

  11. Presumably you don't take your family out to any restaurants either, as they charge similar prices for soft drinks, if not more.

    See this post and subsequent comments from last year.

  12. XX Birkonian said...

    Family groups with children XX

    And as far as I, and my ex pub mates (now taking it in turns to go to each others houses with the carry out), we don't go to the pub to be surrounded by squealing, shitting, pissing, puking, indiciplined little bastards who's "parents" do not know the meaning, or use, of a "good slapped arse".

    Add to that the smoking ban.....

  13. Some pubs deserve to close and some landlords deserve to be sacked.
    My local town has had three pubs close down over the last six months.
    Of the remaining pubs one of them is in a enviable postion, it overlooks a harbour, it has a large outside drinking/smoking area it has no traffic next to it and has large passing trade/tourists.
    So what does it do?
    Well, it has ONE inexperienced bar staff on duty. This one person has to also serve coffee/tea snacks as well as booze. It has dirty glasses and serves flat beer.
    I sat there for an hour earlier this week and watched people walk out because they were behind someone ordering four coffees etc, people taking their dirty glasses or flat beer back to the bar, everybody leaving half drunk pints on the dirty tables and NOBODY having a second drink.
    Bar staff also change almost weekly and I don't blame them.
    It survives because it also sells food at night.
    A potential gold mine run by morons.

  14. Pizza Express charge £2.15 for a 330ml bottle of Coke. Realistically, it is they, not Tesco, who are a direct comparison with higher-end pubs.

    Is that a rip-off? Well, if you think it is, you don't pay it.

    There still seems to be a lingering view in some quarters that pubs are a kind of regulated industry that has to demonstrate "fairness" and "social responsibility" rather than businesses competing in a cut-throat marketplace.

  15. @Anon - that sounds very common of pubs in seaside/tourist areas that have a captive market and think they don't really need to bother.

    Some of the worst pubs I have encountered have been in tourist hotspots.

  16. Well, I am a pubgoer...but I am not a pub fan

  17. Furor Teutonicus (translation: German Hissy Fit): I have come across pubs where children are uncontrolled, but your outburst describes none of the many pubs I go to (15 in 5 towns this month I think - I may have forgotten a couple). I know the small minority of pubs around here that bear some resemblance to your exaggerated description, so I avoid them. But you wouldn't know, seeing that you and your mates drink at each others homes. But I'm glad you do, given your expressed approval of child beating.


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