Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2001

* Is the Price Right? *

If you object to high pub prices you can always take your business elsewhere

"What a rip-off!" "Why do you promote pubs charging such extortionate prices?" "CAMRA should do something about it!" From time to time we hear these complaints in the letters column of "Opening Times". But campaigning on the subject of high prices is nowhere near as easy as it might sound.

For a start, how do you define high prices? 1.80 might seem a lot for a pint of bitter in Levenshulme, but a few miles down the road in Didsbury nobody would bat an eyelid. Beer is not a commodity in the same way as cornflakes or petrol - you might well choose to use a different filling station to save 2p a litre, but even a dramatic price differential may not lure someone away from a pub where they like the beer, where they feel at home, and where their mates go.

Many people are prepared to pay a little bit extra for something special. You will find CAMRA members in local free houses happily supping unusual guest beers that are 40p a pint more than fine beers of the same strength from local independent breweries in Good Beer Guide listed pubs only a few hundred yards away. And, given that the free house owners have gone to some trouble to obtain these rare beers, they're entirely justified in charging a premium for them, and I don't blame anyone for choosing to pay it. I do myself from time to time.

Beer only makes up a small part of most people's weekly budget, and if you're out to enjoy yourself on Friday night you really aren't bothered about counting the pennies. Indeed, many of the most expensive pubs, particularly in Manchester City Centre, are the most conspicuously busy. If their customers choose to pay through the nose, then who am I to stop them?

If you're not happy about prices, the only thing you can do is to avoid those establishments you think are charging too much, and there's nowhere round here that you can't find reasonably-priced pubs. Indeed Holts and Wetherspoons in their different ways have successfully made a policy of it. While CAMRA has a role in highlighting prices that are particularly low or high, any concerted campaign against pub rip-offs will fall at the first hurdle.

* Regulars on the Rack *

Hard-pressed pub regulars may have little alternative but sad solitary drinking at home

But there's another side to the coin, as by no means all pub-goers are weekend revellers or beer hunters. A lot of pub customers are regulars who go to the pub as much to socialise as to drink. They're often pensioners or others on a budget. If prices go up, they may not change their pub, but they will go out later in the evening, go less often, and drink a bit less when they do go. Sitting at home with a couple of cans may not appeal much, but it can be hard to justify going to the pub when the beer's twice as expensive.

A policy of constantly ratcheting prices up by more than inflation will, over time, erode the trading base of the pub. Many pubs now don't even bother opening at lunchtime, and many more are depressingly empty away from peak times, in a way they weren't ten years ago, while at the same time there must be a lot more sad solitary tippling of cheapies from the off-licence.

Those owning and running mainstream local pubs must be very careful that in the long term they don't end up pricing themselves out of the market and destroying their trade. The signs are already there for all to see.

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