Friday, March 11, 2011

Cause or effect?

I recently reported on the call from Alcohol Concern for alcoholic drinks to be confined to separate areas in shops. While I certainly wouldn’t say I’m in favour of this, taken in isolation it wouldn’t really make much difference to anything. Other countries (notably Australia) have similar restrictions and don’t seem to be notably abstemious societies. Indeed, we drank more beer, and had a society in which alcohol was more “normalised”, when most off-sales were through stand-alone off-licences, or separate counters in supermarkets, when pubs closed for three hours in the afternoon and at 10.30pm during the week, and across large areas of Wales were closed all day Sunday.

Rather than being a cause of increased at-home drinking, isn’t the rise of alcohol sales in supermarkets, and the increased use of price promotions, primarily a result of a growing market which has over the years become potentially much more valuable for retailers? Business reflects changes in society, it doesn’t in general drive them.

Another factor, of course, is that the rise of beer drinking at home is closely linked with the growth in ownership of cars and refrigerators. Regardless of price, the working man of 1955 would have struggled to get a slab of Carling home from the outdoor, and would have had nowhere to keep it cool once he had, whereas, even in those pre-lager days, most pubs had naturally cool cellars for their draught ale.

I’m also far from convinced that having alcohol on general display increases overall consumption to any significant extent. Yes, it may encourage people to buy particular wines or beers that are being promoted, but I doubt whether it very often persuades people to buy a bottle on impulse when they wouldn’t otherwise have bought any at all.