This can be a dangerous attitude to carry across into the business world, where companies often seem preoccupied with attracting a diminishing and fickle youth audience while loyal older customers are ignored. This article identifies this misapprehension as one of the factors behind the fall of Silicon Valley Bank:
When releasing its annual State of the Wine Industry report for 2023 (as well as lending to tech start-ups, it also had a premium wine lending arm), it came to the conclusion that the future of the wine sector depended on bringing a new generation of young drinkers into the category.
This was the wrong decision again by SVB. The reality is that great swathes of young people don’t touch wine, and they never have done. Consider that as many as 35% of people in their 20s don’t drink vino at all, whereas in contrast, the majority of wine is consumed by the over-40s. What actually happens is that many of these younger drinkers ultimately move over into the wine-drinking camp as they get older, and possibly more discerning with their alcohol choices.
The same seems to happen on a regular cycle with trying to attract younger drinkers to cask beer. However, the main thrust of Glynn Davis’ article is how this attitude applies to the pub trade. Increasingly, the over-45s are the people with both the time and money to spend in pubs, but when they do cross the threshold they encounter a variety of factors that make them feel ill at ease.
Meanwhile, 25% of the population is sitting pretty. These are aged over 45, largely mortgage-free and living rather comfortably, with plenty of disposable income. But they have moderated their behaviour in line with the rest of the country and reduced their frequency of visits to pubs, bars and restaurants.The volume of music in pubs is a perennial complaint. Regardless of what genre it is, if it’s too loud to sustain a conversation many people are simply not going to want to stay. I remember on our trip to Shifnal in 2019 going in the Crown in mid-afternoon and being regaled by the greatest hits of Pink at absolutely earsplitting volume. There were very few other customers, none of them particularly young, and I’m really not sure for whose benefit it was being played. As I said, “It wasn’t surprising that this was by some way the least busy of all the pubs we visited.”
Drawing these people out of their homes more often must surely represent a major opportunity for the hospitality industry? They need to be given more confidence, and reasons, to get spending again, and this could involve some really simple things like increasing the print size of menus, adjusting the lighting and addressing one of the biggest bugbears of older customers – the high volume of music in many venues.
The choice of music is also an important factor. It has to be remembered that the older generation are people who have lived through the Summer of Love, punk and rave culture, and so don’t necessarily want to be given the musical equivalent of a pipe and slippers. They are people who will still put School’s Out, Back in Black and Smells Like Teen Spirit on the jukebox. There is a tendency to believe a pub appealing to a more mature clientele should offer a mixture of bland easy listening and songs from the shows, which can be very wide of the mark.
From the Beatles to the Britpop era, the popular music of the day was part of the general public consciousness. But, in the present century, the fragmentation of media and the growth of streaming has greatly undermined this, and so if a pub plays contemporary pop it will to a large extent fall on deaf ears. And a crucial factor is that music should always be selected to suit the tastes of the customers, not the bar staff.
Edit: I ran this Twitter poll which underlines the point. Only 13% of respondents said they made any effort to keep up with the current charts, including a slightly lower proportion of under-50s:
POLL: Do you make at least some attempt to keep up with current chart music? 🎶— Pub Curmudgeon 🌸🍻 (@oldmudgie) April 9, 2023
Other factors that could be added are:
- Low lighting, making reading impossible.
- Bare wood floors, which echo and amplify noise rather than soaking it up.
- Long flights of stairs to reach the toilets. There is a huge territory covered by “not disabled, but not as sprightly as I once was”. Wetherspoon’s do well on most of these points, but not on this one.
- Putting your entire menu on a blackboard – maybe OK for daily specials, but regular items should on a printed menu with font of a legible size and which makes it clear how to order and exactly what comes with what.
- Allowing noisy children a free run of the pub.
Obviously if a pub deliberately markets itself as being targeted at the older generation it is likely to have a negative effect – oldies do not want to be reminded of the fact. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for pub operators to take a few simple steps to avoid being offputting to older customers without deterring anyone else. And, at a time when younger people seem to be increasingly avoiding alcohol entirely, and preferring burying themselves in social media to actual physical socialising, it makes good business sense.
It’s easy to say “you need to catch them young”, but it has been extensively demonstrated over the years that there are many things in life that people just grow into. An excessive focus on youth is likely to prove counter-productive.