The Once Great British Pub
Can these age-old favourites weather the storm?
Time was, there was a pub on almost every street corner. These age-old institutions have faced and survived everything from World Wars to smoking bans. But as running costs spike and consumers continue to moderate their drinking, do they even match with our lifestyles anymore? And what can they do to survive?
You can’t help but feel bad for ‘the Great British pub’. These once beloved cultural institutions used to have the market all to themselves. For hundreds of years they’ve fit perfectly into, even shaped, the fabric of the communities around them. They’ve been an extension of their customer’s living rooms, a place for regulars to gather at the end of and even the middle of, the working day. A venue for every plot line in the best and worst soap operas. Put simply, until recently they fit perfectly into the rhythms of British life.
But, they’ve had a brutal 15 years or more. From the smoking ban to soaring business rates, to shifting lifestyles that forced most pubs to add food to their repertoire, their numbers have been significantly thinned as dwindling demand and cost pressures have forced the closure of thousands. A special mention goes to all those once beautiful venues that have fallen, only to be resurrected as Tesco Metros. Truly, that should be a crime.
According to estimates from real estate advisers Altus Group, the UK may have lost as many as 7,000 pubs over the past ten years, dipping to below 40,000 in the first half of 2022. And the rate of closure is accelerating. During the three months to the end of September 2022, it says Government property tax records shows that 150 pubs were either demolished or converted to another use, such as homes and offices. That number is double the rate of closure for the first six months of 2022, when 200 pubs closed for good.
They may be cultural assets, but whose fault is their failure? There can be no doubt that businesses – especially hospitality businesses – are operating under some of the harshest conditions they’ve likely ever faced. Soaring utilities costs, rising food and drinks prices, increased business rates and higher staffing costs (when staff can actually be found) have made operating unviable for many. According to a recent piece by the BBC, some pubs are even halving the range of drinks they have on tap to save money during the energy crisis, having seen running costs spike by 150% in just one month. Its an exceptional set of circumstances. There’s no doubt that businesses need government help and protection from the ability of energy companies to hike bills with no cap.
Failure is endemic
However – and not meaning to kick them while they’re down – part of the reason for the failure is also that pubs haven’t quite managed to keep up with the changing needs and wants of consumers.
When coffee shops were having a real heyday about 10 years ago, many pubs switched to offering take out coffee to draw people in. And for many, that worked. But since then, there’s been no real mass innovation, apart from at-seat ordering prompted by the pandemic. Change forced upon businesses was one thing, but what is the next step?
As drinkers shift to moderation and health kicks, where are the dedicated low-calorie menus? Pubs needn’t take on new stock to devise this. A simple list of the lowest calorie serves would suffice. And what about welcoming in a more diverse crowd? Too many pubs still seem to have a ‘locals only’ vibe.
It’s do or die
In the age of at-home working, surely pubs could market themselves as a stress-free place to work from for a few hours, a pub’s quietest hours anyway. Surely consumers looking to cut their energy bills this winter would welcome using someone else’s power and heating for a few hours.
Similarly, what’s with all the stodge? Old fashioned pub grub is great, but would a few healthier options hurt for those that are choosing not to visit because they don’t feel catered for. Smoothie options – whether packaged or freshly made – are virtually non-existent. Though they may seem a small solution, they are a building brick in a larger process of collectively changing the mindset of consumers about how a pub does, or doesn’t fit in with the lifestyle. And without adapting, many more are doomed to fail.
Essentially, pubs don’t need to rebrand, but they do need to move their image closer to the demands of those consumers with time, spending power and the desire and ability to regularly use them; a younger crowd who’ve not yet settled down and had kids. Failing to match up to their lifestyle needs means chasing the spending power or demographic that can’t and already isn’t sustaining them. Like the story line of a good soap, what pubs need is a major plot twist.
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