Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November/December 2019
There’s a limit to how far pubs can go in appealing to non-drinkers
A MAJOR problem for the pub trade is the growing proportion of young people who have chosen not to drink alcohol at all. In response to this, a recent report has said that 70% of “Generation Z” believe that pubs need to become “more inviting” to those who do not drink. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt given that it was sponsored by a coffee company, but it does make an important point.
Clearly it makes sense for pubs to widen their appeal so that they can be more inclusive of non-drinkers. Customers are increasingly likely to consist of mixed groups of drinkers and abstainers. This can be achieved by providing higher-quality tea and coffee and soft drinks, offering food and putting on events like quizzes and live music. And, to be honest, they have been doing these things to a greater or lesser extent throughout my drinking career. It’s nothing new or exactly a startling revelation.
However, there’s an important caveat here. The core purpose of pubs is, and always has been, socialising centred around the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Yes, over the decades they have needed to evolve and change in various ways, but that fundamental fact remains unchanged. If nobody drank alcohol, there would be no pubs. Non-drinkers may enjoy various activities and services provided by pubs, but they wouldn’t exist in the first place without drinkers. It’s rather like non-alcoholic beer – it’s only there to mirror to some extent the taste and experience of drinking alcoholic beer.
If they go too far down the road of changing their offer, pubs may well find themselves evolving into something entirely different – a restaurant, a music venue or a community centre. It also has to be questioned to what extent all this diversification is actually going to bring new customers into pubs. It may make non-drinkers happier when they are there, but will it encourage them to visit more often?
The reason that the pub trade has declined so much over recent years is essentially because, due to a combination of social and legislative changes, the demand for their core product has fallen. There’s a limit to how far they can go in catering for other needs. Realistically, the fortunes of the pub trade are closely linked to the proportion of people in society who enjoy drinking alcohol in a social setting.
It’s hard to believe that twentysomethings now feel more pressure to drink than previous generations
IN A SIMILAR vein, another survey has claimed that Millennials feel five times more likely to be pressurised into drinking alcohol when socialising than older generations. Again this was produced on behalf of a company with a vested interest in the results, but I find it very hard to believe.
Over the past twenty years, the pressure to drink alcohol on social occasions has greatly reduced, and in many situations not drinking has become the norm. This is particularly the case with anything connected with work, after hours as well as at lunchtime. Indeed, it is often the person who chooses an alcoholic drink who stands out and ends up being stigmatised. We also have initiatives like “Dry January” where not drinking is presented as virtuous.
Maybe one area where this does happen is in higher education institutions, but they provide a huge range of social activities, most of which don’t involve drinking at all. The fact that someone has organised a Carnage pub crawl doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to go on it. This is an example of the common phenomenon of something attracting more criticism as it becomes less popular. Forty years ago, there undoubtedly would have been more social pressure to drink, but nobody complained about it back then.