March 2012

Tipping Point Approaches

Can anything be done about the remorseless increase in off-trade beer sales relative to the on-trade?

IN 2011, just over 47% of beer drunk in the UK was sold in the off-trade, as opposed to 53% in pubs, bars and clubs. This compares with a mere 32% ten years earlier. The British Beer & Pub Association reckon that 2012 might well see the “tipping point” where off trade sales exceed on-trade for the first time, possibly after the quarter including the European football championships. To the lover of pubs, this may be a cause for regret, but is there really anything that can be done about it?

This shift is often laid at the door at the growing disparity between pub and supermarket prices. But it has to be remembered that pubs are selling an experience, not just beer, and over time, as real incomes increase, the cost of services will tend to rise relative to that of goods because of their greater labour content. I doubt whether many of those complaining about this disparity are advocating a reduction in the minimum wage, and any attempt to rig the market by artificially increasing the price of off-trade alcohol is likely to bring only a short-term respite.

There is also of course the smoking ban, which over the period since its introduction in 2007 is reckoned to have reduced drink sales in pubs by about 15% over and above the long-term trend. But, while this has undoubtedly accelerated the relative decline of pubs, it was still happening well before 2007.

Beyond those two factors, there are a whole range of wider changes in society that have contributed to the rise in at-home drinking. The decline of heavy industry has meant that there are far fewer manual workers for whom going in the pub every night and drinking numerous pints is a way of life. Plus there has been an erosion of traditional gender roles, meaning that it is no longer acceptable for the husband to go out to the pub while the wife stays at home with the kids.

There has been a long-term trend away from beer towards wine. Historically, pubs have done wine very poorly and in any case it is something generally drunk with a meal rather than simply during a drinking session. This has been associated with the rise in eating out, which tends to replace simple drinking sessions and is often not done in pubs.

Mass car ownership makes taking loads of cans or bottles home a much more practical proposition than it used to be. At the same time, while more people have cars, they are increasingly reluctant to drive after drinking even within the legal limit, thus reducing the number of potential opportunities to go for a drink in a pub.

There is a much wider and more interesting choice of drinks available in the off-trade than there was thirty years ago, whereas, unless you're a cask beer fan, the range of drinks in most pubs can be somewhat limited. Homes themselves are much more congenial places than they were in the 1970s and offer far more in the way of entertainment, with central heating, multi-channel TV, DVDs, internet and computer games.

Employers are in many cases much less tolerant of even light lunchtime drinking by their staff. In addition, the ever-increasing public demonisation of even moderate drinking means that, when people do drink, they are more likely to do it outside the public eye, to the inevitable detriment of pubs.

The conclusion must be that there are a whole range of factors contributing to the shift from pub to at-home drinking. While a good pub will always offer a better drinking experience than the living room, realistically the days when pubgoing was a routine part of most people’s everyday lives are not coming back, and any Canute-like attempt to stem the tide is unlikely to meet with lasting success.

(And yes, I know very well that Canute was making the point that he couldn’t stop the tide)

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