In recent years there have been major changes in the pattern of footfall in pubs in the wake of liberalised opening hours. It’s been widely noted that many pubs see an upsurge of trade in the week at around 4 pm, when many tradespeople finish work, while in town and city centres trade often builds up in the late afternoon after a quiet lunchtime, especially on Saturdays. Yet, before 1988, these were times when all pubs were firmly shut, and indeed on Saturdays many delayed their evening opening until 7 pm.
In the first few years after 1988, although all-day opening was permitted, very few pubs took it up. I remember it being virtually impossible to find anywhere open in the centres of Manchester or Stockport. But, driven by the rise of Wetherspoon’s and other High Street chains, things started to change, and by the end of the century all-day opening was pretty common. And, slowly but surely, the pattern of trade followed, with late afternoon often becoming a busy time. Pubs found that they were losing trade to their competitors if they shut at 3 and, just as importantly, finding that the early bird had caught the worm if they didn’t open until 7 pm.
The pre-1988 pattern of standardised opening hours allowed for morning opening as early as 10 am in some areas. Nowadays, that rather comes across as “tell the kids that, and they won’t believe you”, but at one time it was recognised that there was a demand for it. However, early opening was steadily eroded over the succeeding years, and by the current century it became relatively rare for pubs to open before noon, if indeed they opened at all at lunchtimes.
However, the introduction of so-called “flexible” hours from 2005 onwards allowed pubs the freedom to open earlier if they wanted to. This was enthusiastically taken up by Wetherspoon’s, pretty much all of whose pubs in England and Wales now start serving alcohol at 9 am. And, while they aren’t crowded then, they have attracted a distinct clientele who prefer drinking at that time, as I wrote back in 2019. It’s very easy to sneer at these people, but surely the whole point of flexible hours is that people can drink at a time that suits them, rather than a narrow window distated by the law and social conformity.
As I said, I fully understand the cost pressures that are currently leading pubs to trim their hours. But those are two examples of how being able to open at times when they previously weren’t able to has unlocked a seam of trade that conventional wisdom said didn’t exist.