Monday, August 1, 2011

Drip, drip, drip...

Pubs are still closing in large numbers, and on-trade beer sales are dropping steadily, if not quite catastrophically. But some may question whether this continued decline can be blamed to any extent on the smoking ban, which after all came into effect a full four years ago.

Well, I’ve never claimed that the smoking ban is the sole cause of the decline of pubs over the past four years, but it’s certainly been a major cause. And I would say it’s still happening even now. This is due to what could be described as “the slow erosion of sociability”. You may wonder how a small, steady drip, drip, drip of water can do anything to a rock, but over time it can completely wear it away. One Tuesday night, Ken decides not to go the pub, because last week standing outside in the cold really made his joints play up. Phil notices this, and mentions it to Jenny, who ends up giving it a miss the next week. And so it goes on.

It wasn’t the case that a lot of smokers made a swift decision after the ban that pubs were no longer for them, although some undoubtedly did. Others might have made an effort to stay inside and just pop out occasionally, but after a while have found that didn’t suit. They may have given up after one harsh winter, or stuck it out but been finally deterred by a second one, or even a third one. And non-smoking friends and acquaintances may have continued going, but suddenly found it less appealing when some of the folks they used to chat with were no longer there.

Plus, with many people, it’s not a case of stopping visiting entirely, but of going less often and spending less when they do go. It is very noticeable that the trade of pubs had dropped much less at the traditional weekend busy times than at what were always quieter periods. Many pubs used to have a baseload trade of lunchtime regulars, retired or unemployed or on invalidity, including in my experience a fair proportion of smokers. That kind of trade seems now to have largely disappeared. Plenty of pubs no longer open at lunchtimes during the week, and where they do they are often embarrassingly quiet. And what are all those people doing? Probably sitting at home with a few cans and an ashtray watching daytime TV on their own.

Changes in people’s social habits happen very gradually and often creep up on them. They may suddenly realise “I used to go to the Dog & Duck at least twice a month, but I’ve not been for a year now.”

Obviously the effect has somewhat flattened out now, but it’s not yet run its course. And, as has often been remarked upon, the much-heralded influx of non-smoking drinkers to pubs totally failed to materialise.

There are other factors at work, too. First is the fact that new entrants to the potential pubgoing population may well take a different view from their elders. If you’re used to going to pubs, you may be prepared to put up with popping outside for a fag, but if you’ve never got into the pubgoing habit you may fail to see the point if you’re not allowed to smoke.

Then there is always the temptation of the “new format” or the “rebranding”. If you’re running a petrol station, there’s not a huge amount you can do to diversify if demand for your core product drops off. But, with a pub, there are always other things you can try to drum up more trade – more or different food, guest beers, quiz nights, karaoke. Sometimes these will produce a short-term boost, but all too often trade eventually falls back to its previous level. All you’re doing is temporarily redistributing the existing trade, not increasing the overall level. This makes the pub trade almost uniquely vulnerable to “the triumph of hope over experience”.

There’s also the state of the property market. For three years it’s been in the doldrums, so the opportunities to sell up for redevelopment are curtailed. Thus some pubs stagger on because that’s more economic in the short-term, but once things pick up their days will be numbered. I’m surprised, for example, that all of the six rather down-market wet-led pubs on Castle Street, Edgeley, Stockport, have survived thus far. I’d be even more surprised if they were still all there in five years’ time. (I think the unlamented Windsor Castle had closed some time before 2007) There are plenty of pubs still open and trading that in the long term have been made unviable by the smoking ban.

I would say it will be at least ten years before the effects of the ban have fully worked their way through the pub trade. By that time we may be down to less than 40,000.