October 2013

Open and Shut Case

The liberalisation of licensing hours has often led to pubs opening shorter hours

IT’S NOW twenty-five years since 1988 when the licensing laws were liberalised and all-day pub opening permitted once again. However, over time, in many cases the effect seems to have been pubs opening for shorter hours, not longer. Before 1988, most pubs would adhere fairly closely to the standard permitted hours for their area, although opening a bit later at lunchtimes and Saturday evenings was fairly common. If a pub was normally closed even for one session it was something worthy of note.

In the early years of the new licensing regime, most pubs seemed to stick to their previous pattern of opening, and indeed a couple of years afterwards it was still hard to find anywhere open after 3 pm in the centres of Stockport and Manchester. However, the growth of Wetherspoons and other chain pubs, which didn’t close in the afternoon, made them start to reconsider that approach, and nowadays you’ll find that most pubs in town and city centres do open all day.

On the other hand, many pubs with a more local appeal started to take the view that there wasn’t much point in opening at lunchtimes at all, especially during the week, and switched to an evenings-only model, possibly including Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, although some don’t even bother with that. This has even happened to some pubs that once did a healthy lunchtime trade with customers from local workplaces.

I’d certainly not want to argue that pubs should be expected to open at times when they can’t trade profitably, and curbing your hours can make it possible for a couple to run a pub with little or no additional staff. However, if they’re doing this, it’s surely vital to display the opening hours outside so people know when they’re going to be able to get in. Even if you’re not going to the pub on that occasion, you can still make a mental note of the hours for a later visit. And, if you turn up and find a pub shut, if you know it will open in half an hour you may stick around and wait; if there’s no indication at all you’re more likely just to go elsewhere.

If you are in a location where there is potential passing and casual trade, limiting your hours can also indicate a smallness of ambition and reluctance to cultivate a wider appeal. The amount of trade on offer at lunchtimes is often underestimated – for example, many retired people much prefer going to the pub at lunchtime rather than in the evening, and I’ve come across some pubs that are like a pensioners’ social centre in the afternoon. Plus people nowadays are less likely to work regular, 9-5 hours, so more working people will be around in the daytime. Open a Wetherspoon’s pretty much anywhere and there will be people in for a drink from mid-morning onwards, and throughout the afternoon, even when nearby pubs are firmly shut.

Another point is that lengthy and predictable opening hours are in themselves a selling point even to potential customers who aren’t really going to take advantage of them. You know Wetherspoon’s are open all day, and so you can plan a visit with confidence without having to check what the actual hours are. And one word-of-mouth report that someone visited a pub at a time when they might reasonably have expected it to be open, and found the door firmly shut, could do a lot of damage. If a pub gets a reputation for scarcely ever being open it will make it much less appealing to casual customers.

At the end of the day, pubs are there to provide a service to their customers, and if they can’t be bothered opening when people want to visit, it will result in a black mark for that particular establishment and potentially also the entire sector.