Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Grubby pubs

The House of Commons recently passed a bill allowing pub landlords to source beer from the open market breaking the all too common tie between a particular pub and a particular brewery that's been a feature of the UK pub scene for hundreds of years.

I am a great fan of (good) pubs, I think it's very sad that many of them have been forced to shut down or been converted into maisonettes in recent years. I don't think this can be put down to one simple thing; we are perhaps seeing the inevitable effect of changing consumption trends generally as well as impact from a changing demography and perhaps more subtle indirect effects from technology.

There are lots more disincentives to going to pubs than ever before and generally, pubs have not raised their game to meet these objections head on. With the exception of adding TV screens, a typical pub has changed little in the last 20 years; apart from getting emptier. Years ago the pub was one of only a few places that people could go to be entertained (via drinking and socialising) now there are many more choices, technology improvements mean that we have ample (some would say more than) choices right in our living rooms, hundreds of channels, gaming consoles, films and music on demand etc. When you add to this a limitless choice of ingredients, pre-prepared food and drink to consume that can be purchased (relatively) cheaply from most supermarkets then there seems little reason to leave the house, especially if you invite a bunch of friends round. What could possibly reverse this trend? It's a good question and not an easy one to answer for all cases, but I think this decision could be a game changer for some pubs.

Pubs these days tend to be either ruled out (the stay at home argument) or are simply a meeting place prior to going on to do something else; pubs need to become majority destinations again, there needs to be a reason to go. I can think of several ways to achieve this, specialisation, i.e. sports bar style, inclusiveness as in family/kid friendly, music etc. but the obvious one (to me at least) is serve decent interesting beer! Allowing the consumer to vote with their feet and frequent pubs that serve beer they actually seek out rather than simply "bitter" or "lager" would seem to me to be an obvious way of building a reason for people to go. Fashion and taste changes of course, so the other thing pubs need to do (and most have no clue) is to leverage social media and modern (cheap) marketing channels to give people more reasons to visit; you may have a keg of the latest and greatest West Coast IPA, a batch of locally sourced Scotch eggs, or a case of a new trendy Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc but unless you tell potential customers somehow, how will they ever know?

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