marketing opinion pubs

Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers

Efforts to boost the pub trade often focus on nagging those who already go to go more often, and to more pubs, and drink more while they’re there. This seems misguided to us.

We go to the pub several times a week — more often than most of our friends and family — but sometimes feel under pressure from the collective weight of pub campaigners, messages from the trade, and fellow enthusiasts, to pull a bit more weight. Don’t ask us for specific examples — this is just a sense we’ve picked up over several years drifting about in the conversation.

But we reckon the saving of the pub (if it needs saving — an entirely different conversation) is in making it a normal part of everyday life for more and different people. We have plenty of acquaintances who used to go to the pub, who have a good time at the pub when they do, but just… don’t.

Why not?

  • It’s too far — there are fewer in residential areas than 100 years ago for various reasons.
  • It’s too expensive — mostly tax.
  • It’s pot luck — if you’ve got a few quid spare and make the trek, you’re not guaranteed a good time.
  • Pubs can be cliquey — you too often have to go every night for a year to be welcomed by the gang.
  • Home is cosy, has a telly, and possibly more interesting drinks.
  • Kids, i.e. responsible parenting and the decline of the casual babysitter.

Some of that is beyond the pub trade’s control but there is an opportunity in winning over the hesitant. Not turning them into dedicated pub dwellers, which is unrealistic, but reminding them of the pleasure of popping in for a half before dinner, or on the way home from the station. Of skipping out for an hour on a weekend lunchtime, with kids in tow, or making a quick visit part of the Saturday town centre shopping routine.

A London pub glimpsed up an alleyway.

We were staying with friends a while ago and went to their local pub which they visit, at most, three times a year. The landlord smiled when they came in and said, ‘Hello again!’ He even made a good stab at remembering their order. Then they moved house. At the pub nearest their new place, the same kind of casual visit prompted the landlord to say, with what seemed like faint menace, ‘You haven’t been in for ages. You should come in more often.’ The other feller was probably thinking that but he didn’t say it. Why on earth would you say it? They haven’t been back to their new local since.

According to recent research carried out on behalf of Carlsberg (PDF) 34 per cent of consumers choose to visit the pub weekly. Imagine if that figure got pushed up to 40 per cent? If everyone who doesn’t currently make the pub part of their routine started going regularly, even if all they do is drink two halves with a packet of crisps?

Side note (or is it?): the same research suggests that only 24 per cent of women are regular pubgoers, so maybe there’s your additional custom, if you can do what needs to be done to make them feel welcome.

We have a feeling Pete Brown has made this point before but can’t find where. We’ll add a link if we dig it up.

19 replies on “Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers”

To me this matter is made more complex by the fact that “the pub” doesn’t exist in a homogeneous sense. This means (and this is a good thing) that you can go to a “traditional pub”, or a “modern craft beer” bar depending on your mood. I like both, although it’s telling that with the swish new Draft House open in Old Street, I still bypass it mostly and make for the Old Fountain instead (saying that, the manager of the Draft House, James, excels at engaging punters both in person and on social media). I suppose I just feel more comfortable in the familiar, traditional surrounds of the Old Fountain, and the fact it sells Guinness and San Miguel also appeals to me. The Duke’s Head in Highgate also excels at giving a warm welcome, and I bypass many a local to go there of to its new sister pub The Prince because of this. What ties all of these pubs together, however, is good beer and the fact that they aren’t cliquey (not that I’ve noticed), which is why they get my custom (although I do mourn the pubs that I used to frequent but stopped going to as my tastes in beer changed).

Bonus points for using the word Stakhanovite! I dug it out recently, in relation to work sadly. Being a Stakhanovite drinker sounds a lot more fun, until the morning at least.

We both did A level history in the 1990s, i.e. Hitler & Stalin Studies, so we’re always name-dropping Stakhanov.

Price, and the ability to drink something better for cheaper at home, must be a key issue. Has there ever been a better time for buying interesting beer in supermarkets, for instance?

I think another issue is some pubs cater so much for the regulars (as they are the ones keeping the place going) at the expense of attracting anyone new. It is a really difficult balance. You don’t want to drive out the former, but they might be what is putting off the latter.

I really like the idea of making the pub part of the Saturday shopping routine, but that won’t work for anyone who shops in out-of-town centres – another shift in behaviour.

Is there also something about social expectations. I wonder if it is far less acceptable/normal/desirable to pop in the pub on the way home from work, especially if family is waiting at home.

But I think all the above doesn’t matter if you have a really good pub nearby. If somewhere is really friendly, serves good beer and is a nice place to spend time in then it (obviously) becomes far more appealing and you find a way to drink there more often.

The drop in pub going is especially prominent amongst the young, and simply reflects a wider trend. Young people simply socialise less nowadays and prefer to spend their time inside playing computer games or whatever. They go out less, they have less friends, they drink less, they have less sex, they are more lonely, and more likely to be depressed. All because we’ve spent the last 30 years telling them that all these things were very, very bad. Eventually they believed us.

The point of going to the pub is to meet people and socialise. If young people don’t want to do that anymore, then pub going is obviously going to decrease as a direct result.

People have been worrying about young people abandoning pubs for ages — at least since the 1950s — but they do tend to come round to the idea when they get a bit older. The people we had in mind who don’t go to the pub, or don’t go much, are all aged (I guess) 30-75.

“but they do tend to come round to the idea when they get a bit older”

Just in time to get a wife and kids and no longer have the time to go anyway?

Some pubs try really hard to keep going when their clientele dwindle. One pub (Blue Anchor – now closed) turned itself into children’s creche in the mornings. Another just around the corner from it (Rose & Crown) put a TV monitor in the front door with a live feed to its pub garden as a lure. This backfired as all people saw was an abandoned pub inside and out. Kudos for trying, though. It’s still open.

It’s probably something industry wide that’s needed, like training and and ad campaign. At individual pub level, I don’t think it requires any great innovation — just a determined commitment to make casual/part-time/occasional drinkers feel welcome.

There’s A Pub For That!

Not sure about the Saturday shop. When we were a lot younger we used to do the supermarket shop on Friday evening & then spend most of Saturday wandering vaguely around town; we’d usually have lunch in a pub, and quite often stop for a swift half before going home. These days Saturday morning is taken up with the supermarket shop, which is strictly shop/load car/come home.

This is a point I’ve often touched on in my blog – that much of the decline of pubs is not down to serious drinkers going less, or people missing out on Big Nights Out, but to ordinary people less and less fitting pub visits into their daily or weekly routine. See this post from 2013: Socially Unacceptable Supping. Regular pubgoing needs an element of ritual – once that’s gone, many will no longer see the point.

Population churn is another factor – it’s often not the case that existing customers change their habits, but that new entrants to the population don’t adopt the same habits.

As you say, the problem is not that existing customers change their habits, its that they’re not being replaced.

Young people just drink less in general. Between leaving home at 18 and finally reaching adulthood at ~30, most of my generation would go to the pub almost every single day, because it was more fun than staying at home. That is where your mates were, where the birds were, where the pool table, dart board, juke box, pub quiz and dance floor were. Staying at home watching tv, playing computer games or messing about on the internet like a loser seemed liked a bloody poor option in comparison.

Kids in their early-mid-20s nowadays simply don’t do that. They’ve never really “got” pubs, many of them have never really “got” the idea of a casual beer either. The idea that all these young singletons are sitting at home supping cans of lager is ridiculous. The home drinkers are the parents with kids who desperately wish they could go to the pub, but can’t because of their families.

It doesn’t hurt to be realistic and clear-eyed about these things but you might be wallowing in a pit of doom-and-gloom here.

I’d be more convinced by this argument if we hadn’t had people signing the pledge in the 19th century, which pubs survived, and the panic of the 1950s that young people were abandoning pubs for coffee shops and burger bars, which pubs survived, and the idea in the 1980s and 90s that they were ditching beer and pubs for ecstasy and nightclubs, and so on.

As I’ve said a few times, I didn’t drink until I was in my twenties, and then I took to it fairly well. My younger brother doesn’t drink but still goes to the pub quite regularly. Alcohol consumption stats don’t necessarily tell us much about pub-going habits, especially if pubs are willing to accommodate non-drinkers. (I know, creeping prohibition, etc.)

That Carlsberg report says, ‘62% of under 25s visit the on-trade weekly’, which doesn’t sound like a complete disaster.

There might be fewer pubs yet, and/or different types of pub, but a centuries-old institution that’s as well-loved and integral to national identity probably has a few generations left in it yet.

I certainly don’t think that pubs as we know them are going to disappear, or anything like it. But, realistically, I think the current trend of decline still has a long way to run.

I am well aware that long-term trends tend to peter out, so there’s always a risk of extrapolating from the past, and that what goes around comes around. The doom-and-gloom of the 1950s dissipated once the Baby Boomers started spending money in pubs – and those were often pubs modernised in a way that CAMRA in the 1970s thoroughly disapproved of.

The past three years have shown that a combination of a beer duty cut/freeze, and economic recovery, have seriously stemmed the previous decline of the pub trade. It may be that British people are beginning to show a robust contempt for all the patronising Nanny State advice. But it’s not really going to be solved until we abandon the idea that alcohol consumption is something that needs to be ring-fenced from the rest of normal, responsible life – which is partly the point of your original post.

“What, have a pint at lunchtime? You’ll have to write off the rest of the day!”

I always hit the nail on the head, sometimes it just takes a few years for others to catch on.

If I have one pint at lunch time I’m ok, but two and the rest of the day IS a write off. Since I hit 30, I’m simply too bloody busy. I can’t afford the time. It’s only really Friday to Sunday where I don’t have something to do in the evenings either that require a sober head.
But that’s fine, as I become too adult and boring to drink all day, a new generation of 20 year old students and other dossers are ready to replace me at the bar just as I replaced those that came before me. Except, this time, they’re not.

Does this come back to children in pubs again? In my peer group, at least, the overlap between ‘casual’ and ‘regular’ is almost exclusively parents with kids, especially if you’re looking at weekday visiting in particular. And, often, many of them would like to be a deal more regular than they’re able to be.

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