More subtle were the changes to menus, beer ranges and prices that had been implemented. Wetherspoon’s, for example, seem to have increased beer prices by 10p a pint across the board, although it’s highly likely they would have done that in the Spring anyway. So John Smith’s Extra Smooth and Bud Light have now gone up in my local ones from £1.99 to £2.10, although Ruddles Best is still £1.79.
However, at first I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard what was happening in the Sam Smith’s empire, although this report from Middlesbrough seemed to confirm it. So I had to go along to one of my local ones to check it out on the ground, and in most respects the report proved correct, although I wasn’t expected to wear a face mask at the bar and both ladies’ and gents’ toilets were open as normal. Interestingly, I wasn’t asked for any contact details.
There had indeed been a swingeing increase across the board on beer prices, although it wasn’t a flat rate £1 a pint as some had suggested. The 2.8% beers – light and dark mild and Alpine lager - had increased from £1.40 to £2.20. Old Brewery Bitter had indeed gone up by £1 to £3.00, although they didn’t actually have any as apparently “none had been brewed yet”. Double Four Lager, also 4%, was also £3.00, where it had been £2.08 before. Extra Stout and Taddy Lager were now £3.40 as opposed to £2.30, and the premium Pure Brewed Lager had gone up from £3.00 to £4.20. The barmaid suggested to one or two customers that they could try an Alpine/Taddy split, which works out at 3.75% and sets you back £2.80.
It’s often hard to discern any considered strategy, or indeed sense, on pronouncements emanating from Tadcaster, and this will certainly test the patience and the budgets of many of their regular customers. On a personal level, I’m not particularly bothered, as I go there for the congenial atmosphere – comfortable seats, no piped music, TV sport or screaming kids – rather than the low prices. But if many of the other customers are deterred, much of that atmosphere will be lost, and indeed the future of the pubs themselves may be threatened.
The effect won’t be felt evenly across the board. In some of Sam’s Northern pubs in villages and prosperous suburbs, £2 a pint was effectively giving money away to customers who could comfortably, and willingly, afford more, and there may be little difference in the level of trade. Indeed, in such locations everywhere else nearby will still be considerably pricier. However, in some of their town and city centre pubs, and in some of the back street locals in and around Rochdale that Tandleman has been visiting on and off, there is undoubtedly a strong contingent of value drinkers who are likely to react against the price rises, either by transferring their business to Wetherspoon’s or by not coming out at all. Some town centres also have other value pubs that may see an opportunity.
While Wetherspoon’s are undoubtedly now much cheaper for cask beer and John Smith’s, this isn’t the case across their full beer range. Indeed the company in general succeeds in putting across an image of offering low prices that isn’t always borne out on the ground. For example, one of my local branches charges £3.05 for Carling and Foster’s, although the one nearest to the Sam’s pub is £2.69. Plus in Wetherspoon’s people end up sitting in solitary splendour on isolated tables rather than exchanging banter around a room lined with bench seating, and the management are likely to frown even more than normal on rearranging the furniture.
In general these increases will still leave Sam’s prices on a par with, or just below, those of their nearby competitors. It remains to be seen to what extent customers were there just for the cheapness as opposed to valuing other aspects of what the pubs provided. It’s not impossible that in the long term it may come to be seen as a necessary correction to prices that had become seriously out of kilter with the rest of the market and weren’t really bringing in that much extra trade. Or it could prove to be unhinged commercial suicide. Only time will tell.
It should also be remembered that Sam’s weren’t always known for their cheap prices. Going back a generation, they were on a par with the other family brewers. But a series of policy decisions in the present century have led to them overtaking Holt’s to offer by far the cheapest draught beer in tied houses. It’s certainly what Humphrey’s namesake on “Yes Minister” would call a “bold” experiment, and it will be interesting to see whether the policy holds, or whether there will be a reverse ferret once he finds some of his pubs completely devoid of customers. There is certainly a precedent for this in their backtracking on the Great Pie Fiasco.
(The photo shows a group of probable value drinking codgers in the Olde Blue Bell in Hull).
Edit: Tandleman has, entirely independently of me, discussed the same subject, and reached some of the same conclusions.