Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2011
The dramatic long-term decline of pub beer sales still isn’t fully appreciated
ACCORDING to the most recent figures produced by the British Beer & Pub Association, in 1997 total UK beer sales in pubs and bars were 25.6 million bulk barrels. In 2010 the figure had fallen to 14.2 million, a decline of over 44%. There hasn’t been a single quarter since 1997 when on-trade beer sales have shown a year-on-year rise. The biggest single year-on-year fall was 10.6% between the second quarters of 2007 and 2008, the first full year of the smoking ban. The average annual decline over the 13-year period was 4.4%. Over the past three years, that has accelerated to 7.3%.
These figures are thrown into even more sharp relief when we consider that in 1979, a year that history will come to judge as the all-time high water mark of the British pub trade, there were 37 million bulk barrels sold. The current figure is only 38% of that. The off-trade has taken up some of the slack, growing on average by 2.6% over the past thirteen years, but even so has only put back 3.6 million of the 11.4 million barrels lost by pubs, and has actually lost ground too in the recent recession.
Over the past thirty years, we have lost around a third of the total pub stock in Britain, but beer sales have plummeted by over 60%. Given this, it is perhaps surprising not that so many pubs have closed, but so few – and this must suggest that there is more pain to come. And before someone pipes up that “plenty of new bars have opened up to replace the lost pubs”, bear in mind that the sales figures quoted cover the entire on-trade including pubs, bars, clubs and hotels.
There is no simple, single-cause explanation for this long-term decline – it is the result of a variety of changes in society that have combined to greatly reduce the overall demand for pubgoing. These include, amongst others, the decline of heavy industry, increased gender equality, changing attitudes to drink-driving, the growing official demonisation of alcohol and, of course, most recently the smoking ban.
Even now, the sheer scale of the decline of the pub trade still isn’t appreciated anywhere near widely as it should be, and pub closures continue to be viewed as an isolated problem rather than symptoms of a general trend. Pubs will not disappear entirely, of course, and there are still opportunities for well-run pubs in the right location to thrive, but it is clear that in the future the appeal of pubs will be much more of a niche one than it used to be.
By the way, the figures I am quoting are shown in the “UK Quarterly Beer Barometer” produced by the BBPA, which can be downloaded from their website at www.beerandpub.com, so feel free to check them out there.
The idea that pubs close because they were badly run ignores the wider picture
YOU OFTEN HEAR the view expressed that “I’m not surprised that pub X has closed. It had gone really downhill – it had stopped serving real ale and opening at lunchtimes, and seemed to appeal mainly to deadlegs. They ended up putting strippers on to try to attract custom.” Now, that may well explain why Pub X has closed instead of Pub Y, but very often such measures are a symptom of falling sales rather than a cause. Pubs often seem to get into a spiral of decline from which it is difficult to escape.
The reasons why the pub trade as a whole has seen such a dramatic decline over the past thirty years are not because pubs are badly run. Indeed the average pub now is probably much better run than it was in 1979. It is a result of the wider changes in society I mentioned above. This is not being a doom-and-gloom merchant, it is simply being realistic – you can’t tackle a problem without understanding it first.