Tuesday 31 January 2023

If you open, they will come

In the face of rocketing energy bills, many pubs are currently reducing their opening hours. They really can’t be blamed if turning the heating on is costing them more than the takings they bring in at quieter times. But it’s important to remember that, if you’re not open, the number of customers you attract is certain to be zero.

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.

Monday 23 January 2023

They all add up

In my Review of 2022, I mentioned that I had visited 128 different pubs during the year. This was considerably more than in the two years of lockdowns, but still quite a bit less than in the four preceding years, which is as long as I have been keeping a record. For information, for 2016-19 the numbers were 154, 188, 203 and 207. In fact, during 2022 I had to cancel a planned holiday due to unforeseen circumstances, which would probably have bumped up the total to over 140.

However, I was struck by this review of the year by Matthew Thompson, who I know from the local CAMRA branch, who said he had only been to about half a dozen pubs. Now, I have no knowledge of his circumstances, but that obviously indicates a very different mindset. So I thought I would run a Twitter poll on how many different pubs people had visited over the year, producing the following results from an impressive turnout of 511 votes:

Obviously my followers are likely to be much keener on pubgoing than the population at large, but this produced a wide and fairly even spread of results, with the largest share going to the top category of “Over 50”. That must indicate people who are consciously seeking out pubs rather than just visiting them in the normal run of their daily life. GBG ticker Martin Taylor responded that he had been to 877 in 2022, and over 1000 in 2019, which rather puts my efforts in the shade, although I’m not really looking to visit pubs in pursuit of any specific objective.

Ever since I reached legal drinking age I’ve been fascinated by pubs. I would go out and visit various pubs with my dad, and with former school friends in the university holidays. At university in Birmingham, armed with a student railcard, I travelled as far afield as Bath and York. Remember in those days that lunchtime closing was 2.30 pm in most places in the South and Midlands, so trips had to be planned much more carefully than now. Apart from the two years of lockdown, and possibly 2001, which was something of an annus horribilis in which I spent six weeks in hospital with a shattered ankle, and was later made redundant, I would say I’ve visited at least 100 different pubs in every year of my adult life.

In the early years, a major factor was sampling different beers that I had never encountered before. At this time, the tied house system still held sway, and there were only a handful of national-distributed beers, meaning you had to travel to find particular beers. I often sought out obscure pubs just because they had a rare brew for the area. I wrote about this in detail here.

Nowadays, the situation is very much changed, with far fewer pub-owning breweries with a distinctive offer on the bar, and far more beers distributed across the country. Very often, you will walk into a free house or pubco outlet with no idea what you are likely to find, which to my mind somewhat detracts from the experience. However, I will seek out family brewer tied houses when away from my local area, and indeed in the 2010s had two mini-holidays with the partial motivation of visiting Donnington and Hook Norton pubs.

However, I increasingly found that it was the pubs themselves were the attraction, not the beers themselves. As I wrote back in 2010 in a post entitled Wooden Wombs:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
And there are still plenty of pubs to explore that haven’t had the soul sucked out of them by corporate makeovers. I will also make an effort to seek out pubs on CAMRA’s National Inventory when I’m outside my local area.

I’m not setting any targets or making any predictions for 2023, but I would hope that, if all goes well, I can manage at least 150 during the year. I’ve already visited 12 in the first three weeks of the year, which would indicate an annual total over 200, but of course some of those are ones on my regular rounds which I will visit again over the course of the year.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Better late than never

In my post about Falling out of love with alcohol, I mentioned the British Beer & Pub Association’s detailed table of beer sales statistics, which for a long time had not been updated beyond the end of 2018. In fact, they had not been updated for so long that I had given up checking. However, on taking a look at their website, I found they had produced some newer figures, albeit only going up to the end of 2020, so still two years out of date. These can be downloaded from their website as an Excel spreadsheet.

In 2019, the last full year BC (Before Covid) they show the on-trade holding up pretty well. Total sales were 12.658 million barrels, accounting for 45% of the total beer market. This was only 0.6% down on the previous year, and indeed over the five years since 2014 they had only declined by 6.5%, an average of 1.3% a year. This is a much slower rate of decline than, say, print newspapers. In contrast, in the five years from 2006 to 2011, they fell by 25.2%, an average of 5.0% a year. Is that the sound of trumpeting I hear in the distance?

However, 2020 shows a very different story. Total sales saw a catastrophic fall of 55.1% to a mere 5.689 million barrels, representing a mere 23.6% of the total market. Indeed total beer sales fell by 14.2%. While there undoubtedly will have been some switching to wine and spirits, this rather gives the lie to the widespread claim that lockdowns led to an increase in alcohol consumption.

In the first quarter, on-trade sales were down by 18.3%, reflecting the fact that pubs were completely closed down in mid-March, and for a couple of weeks before that trade was increasingly depressed by the lengthening shadow of Covid. Then in the second quarter, which was entirely during lockdown, they fell to a mere 150,000 barrels, all of which would have been take-home sales from pubs.

In the third quarter, when pubs were finally allowed to trade with a reasonable degree of normality, sales showed a good recovery, although they were still 25% below 2019. Then in the fourth quarter they slumped to 795,000 barrels, affected by a month of full lockdown, the hopeless confusion of the tier system and the ludicrous substantial meal and mask rules. In the first quarter of 2021, when there was a full lockdown throughout, and pubs weren’t even allowed to do takeaway sales, they must have fallen to virtually zero.

It would be very interesting if and when these statistics are updated to the end of 2022 to see just how well the on-trade has been able to recover and how close it has been able to regain the pre-Covid position.

Monday 16 January 2023

Falling out of love

Over the weekend, there was an interesting article in the Observer entitled Last orders: how we fell out of love with alcohol. This isn’t maybe the most rigorously researched piece, and it relies heavily on anecdotal evidence, but it does reflect a fundamental truth that, over the past twenty or so years, drinking alcohol has become markedly less fashionable, something I have observed on this blog on several occasions.

After reaching a post-WW1 peak around 2000, in the wake of lad culture and Cool Britannia, per capita alcohol consumption has steadily declined, and is now about 15% lower. Plus, in many situations, drinking alcohol has become less acceptable, and abstaining seen as virtuous rather than cranky. I discussed this back in 2013 in a post entitled Socially unacceptable supping.

Nor is this evenly spread across the board. While the older generation are drinking much the same, their younger counterparts have substantially cut down. “Between 2002 and 2019, the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds in England who reported monthly drinking fell from 67% to 41%.” This clearly gives a pointer to the future direction of travel, and the fall in consumption inevitably lags behind the change in attitudes.

As something becomes less fashionable, people are more likely to prefer to do it in private than in public, which is bad news for the pub trade. According to the statistics produced by the British Beer & Pub Association, in the twenty years from 1998 to 2018 (which is as far as they go), total beer consumption fell by 22.8%, but on-trade consumption almost exactly halved. The trail of pubs now demolished or converted to alternative use is all too obvious. Some will argue that the Anteater Tap is still doing great business, while ignoring the fact that the Sir Garnet Wolseley across the road, which was ten times the size, has been replaced by flats. Even within a declining market, it is still possible to be successful, but that doesn’t make the wider narrative any less true.

In the past, a lot of drinking in pubs was centred around ritual and routine, often linked to the workplace. But all those Friday lunchtime drinks with the office team, after-work unwinders, Sunday lunchtime sessions and “I always go out with Bill and Frank for a few on Friday night” are now much diminished if not virtually extinct. If you’re no longer going to the pub out of habit, but have to make a positive choice to do so, you may well decide not to bother.

Of course you can go to the pub and drink soft drinks or non-alcoholic beers, but the people doing that are in general doing so to go along with their alcohol-drinking peers. In any social group, once a tipping point of non-drinkers is reached, they will begin to question what is the point of going to the pub in the first place.

On the other hand, the article points out that, while it undoubtedly carries health risks, throughout history alcohol has made a major contribution both to human creativity and human sociability.

That, [Professor Edward] Slingerland adds, is where alcohol comes in: put simply, it can turn the PFC (pre-frontal cortex) down a few notches and expand our minds. “Alcohol is a cultural technology,” Slingerland believes, “that we have developed to briefly get us back to our five-year-old brains when it comes to flexibility and creativity. After a few hours it wears off and we can glean the results.” Across the world, throughout history, alcohol has been associated with creatives: artists, poets, great thinkers. “And this is not a myth,” he says. “There’s good evidence it increases creativity, which as a society we need.”

Alcohol can also play a key role in fostering relationships. By temporarily turning down the PFC, we’re more inclined to trust and be open with other people. “In the same way that shaking hands started out as a way to show we aren’t carrying weapons,” says Slingerland, “drinking beers – taking our PFCs out – is like putting our mental weapons on the side. By relaxing the PFC, it’s harder to lie or fake.” And, he adds, alcohol boosts feelgood chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. “These don’t just make us less inclined to cheat. Because we feel positive about each other, it creates a sense of bonding that’s crucial for humankind.”

And I’ll certainly drink to that!

Friday 13 January 2023

Limited offer

Wetherspoon’s are currently running a January Sale including price cuts across a whole range of food and drink items, including reducing the price of a pint of Ruddles Bitter to a mere 99p, in England at least. There have been the predictable complaints that this was unfair and represented predatory pricing. But, in reality, how much of an effect is it likely to have?

By definition, the opportunities to take advantage of an offer on something that is consumed at the time of purchase are much more limited than on something that can be taken home and stored for later use. It may tempt the odd person to visit Wetherspoon’s who otherwise wouldn’t have done, or encourage them to have an extra pint, but it’s hardly going to turn the market upside down. And remember that Ruddles Bitter was already priced at £1.49, so you’re only saving 50p per pint. The main benefit to Wetherspoon’s will be gaining publicity.

Low prices alone seldom provide sufficient attraction to visit pubs. You sometimes see urban pubs with signs advertising how cheap their beer is, but by and large they tend to be the less appealing ones. Yes, Wetherspoon’s do offer good value, but they also attract customers due to their long and consistent opening hours, their wide food and drink offer, and their general ambiance that doesn’t make anyone feel unwelcome. In any case, they are competing as much with fast food and casual dining outlets as with other pubs. And, over their full drinks range, they’re not as cheap as cask drinkers might imagine. The discount on cask is greater than on other beers because it’s the product where people make price comparisons.

Another factor is that people generally buy drinks in rounds rather than individually. There’s a general understanding that people don’t take the piss by ordering particularly expensive drinks when it’s someone else’s turn, but the benefit of choosing a cheap beer purely on price is diluted. If you choose Ruddles on your round and Leffe when someone else is paying your companions won’t be impressed. Wetherspoon’s probably attract a higher proportion of solo drinkers than most other pubs, but even so the majority are likely to be buying in rounds. It may be that the rise of app ordering is eroding round-buying, but I doubt whether than is a big factor amongst the Ruddles-buying classes. I am currently running a Twitter poll which so far is showing a strong preference for round-buying:

The custom of round buying is also why various attempts to introduce lower-priced, weaker “value bitters” in pubs have always been a failure. Over the years, I remember various North-West brewers trying this – Boddingtons had Old Shilling and Hydes Billy Westwood’s – and some of them were actually quite pleasant. I remember once drinking six pints of Billy Westwood’s on Sunday lunchtime in the now-demolished Moss Rose/Four Heatons near my home. But none stayed the course, as the round-buying culture, especially in traditional boozers, worked against them. Why choose a cheap product rather than the mainstream one when someone else is paying?