20th Century Pub pubs

Is there a Wetherspoon effect?

Are the pubs dead because there’s a Wetherspoon nearby? Or is the Wetherspoon busy because the pubs nearby are dead?

A few weeks ago we got into a conversation about pub closures with Ray’s brother who is a data scientist.

As tends to happen, he started firing off suggestions for factors that might be measured to help us understand why more pubs close in some neighbourhoods than others.

One suggestion was proximity to a branch of Wetherspoon, the budget pub chain that dominates Britain’s high streets.

We’d considered this before, thinking specifically about how big these ‘superpubs’ tend to be. 

What is reportedly the biggest ’Spoons in the country has 551 tables, with seating for about 2,000 people.

Down in Penzance, where we lived for six years, the Wetherspoon pub was three or four times bigger than most others in town.

If there are only a limited number of people to serve, and pints to sell, the opening of Wetherspoon is like several new pubs competitors opening at once.

Anecdotal evidence from the Bristol suburbs

On Saturday, we went for a wander aiming to advance our mission to visit every pub in Bristol. As part of that, one three-pub run seemed especially interesting:

  1. a recently refurbished Victorian pub
  2. an average-sized Wetherspoon
  3. another Victorian pub

The first and third were, frankly, desolate. In each we counted three customers other than ourselves.

The first was completely, eerily silent, except when the jukebox fired up every now and then with a promotional free play.

The drinkers, all older men, were sat as far apart from each other as possible, on their own, staring into space.

The third was notably cold and damp, with slug trails on the bench seating.

The atmosphere was more lively, thanks to a chatty chap at the bar, but it still felt as if it was in a state of decay.

Both looked, from the outside, like the kind of pubs less intrepid pubgoers might read as ‘rough’, though they didn’t feel it once the threshold had been crossed.

By comparison, the Wetherspoon felt like the Rio Carnival. There were hardly any free seats and a crowd standing around the bar. And the bar staff were rushing to serve a never-ending queue of drinkers.

From our corner, we watched meals, desserts, cocktails, shots and pints being ferried back and forth.

There was a warm pub hubbub, too, with drinkers of all ages, couples, groups of women, children, students, dogs…

We drank Thornbridge Jaipur (5.9%) and Oakham Winter Wisp (4.2%), both at £2.55 a pint. If we’d been on a tighter budget, we could have had Greene King IPA at £1.77.

The two more traditional pubs nearby were serving pints at around the £4 mark which is competitive for 2023 – but still feels pricey compared to ’Spoons.

The question we asked ourselves was this:

Is the ’Spoons stealing all the local trade, or picking up customers who would never have visited the other pubs anyway?

It’s hard to imagine that if the ’Spoons closed the clientele would decamp to the two nearest pubs, with their quite different vibe.

But perhaps enough drinkers would do so to bring them back to life.

On a Saturday evening in December, they’d probably rather have, say, eight customers than three.

Counterpoint: the Redfield retreat

What was our nearest Wetherspoon, The St George’s Hall on Church Road, Redfield, closed down in 2021.

Since then, at least one previously quiet local pub, The George & Dragon, has come back to life. And The nearby Old Stillage has been extended with more seating.

Our observation would be that neither pub has particularly gentrified, and both remain drinkers’ pubs, with no food offer.

In fact, the Old Stillage has replaced a former dining area with more boozing space.

Did ’Spoons disappearing release enough regulars into the wild to give Church Road a shot in the arm?

Or were the existing pubs strong and distinctive enough to see off the apex predator?

Pending data

It would be good to move beyond anecdotal evidence and gut feeling.

What we’d love is to crunch some numbers. Jess is quite handy with a spreadsheet and with the right data sources we could easily identify patterns.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has a data set on pub closures between 2017 and 2022

If we can find a similar set of stats for when and where branches of Wetherspoon opened, some correlation might emerge.

Our book 20th Century Pub plus the zine Pierre van Klomp says now for £12 together.

We have a limited number of copies of 20th Century Pub, now out of print, available for £12, including UK postage and packing.

It includes an entire chapter on the history and meaning Wetherspoon and the superpub craze of the 1980s and 90s.

We’re also including a free copy of Pierre van Klomp says “No.” with each copy.

Get your order in (by Friday 15 December if you want it before Christmas) by emailing

22 replies on “Is there a Wetherspoon effect?”

These prices seem shockingly low. This is for full imperial pints? An imperial pint of Jaipur for under $3! Unimaginable in the USA, except as some kind of special promotion.

Even £4 is cheap although at that level ($5) you’re approaching what you might expect to pay for a pint of something good in the USA. That would be an American pint, though.

As we say in the post, that £4 is at the competitive end by 2023 standards. It’s more like £5 or even £6 for a pint of fairly ordinary beer in most pubs now. But Wetherspoon is playing a totally different game.

My purely anecdotal observation on the two huge Wetherspoons in central Dublin is that they attract a crowd that wouldn’t be in proper pubs otherwise,. They’re late teens and twenty-somethings (tracksuits on the northside; New York outlet mall on the southside, as nature intended) who would be in each other’s homes or in the park with cans if Wetherspoon wasn’t there. They go for the cocktail pitchers rather than the €2.50 pints, though.

I’d say both propositions are true – Spoons do take trade from other pubs, but at the same time they also expand the total size of the market. They have prospered through offering things that other pubs don’t, such as reliable 7-day all-day opening and all-day food. It’s not just because they’re cheap. If you’re closed on Mondays, don’t open until 4 pm on any other day and don’t serve food, you can’t really complain that Spoons are stealing your trade.

If you want to compete against a nearby Spoons you have to offer something distinctively different.

Update – all those dates I thought were openings were actually when he visited the pub! Though I suspect the date he visited isn’t too far off the opening in a good number of more recent cases

I wonder if an added variable might be other pub openings in an area – thinking particularly how micropubs may (or may not) have had an impact on traditional pub business too.

You know what you’re getting with a Wetherspoons. Whether that’s an incentive to visit is up to the individual to decide. And the first two pubs you describe don’t sound like they’re presenting themselves in a way designed to attract a load of business.

I suspect also that, with a group, it’s probably easier to decide on the Spoons, as the place that no-one violently objects to, even if none of them might actively prefer it (and, you know what you’re getting).

“You know what you’re getting with a Wetherspoons.” not the case for the cask beer drinker, in my experience; quality can vary massively, even in the same branch.

The beer at ‘spoons is cheap, so if there’s a good one then great. Comments about the ready availability of food (or at least refuelling) can make it a useful stop and on a strange town can be a good place to start.

Personally I am used to paying about £5 a pint, but that feels really expensive after a £2.55 purchase.

You have to wonder why people go to a pub to sit on their own in no atmosphere when they could do that for half the price nearby. However I would not consider a Wetherspoons to be the point of a trip out just a calling place.

Other pubs can’t compete with Wetherspoons on price, of course. But they can compete by having good beer, clean toilets and wi-fi that works, not deafening their customers with terrible music, and not forcing prospective visitors to run a gauntlet of chain-smoking troglodytes to get through the front door in the first place. Perhaps publicans could ask themselves what JDW offers that they don’t.

I can think of at least two well-run pubs that are doing just fine and very popular despite each being right across the street from a Wetherspoons. Both regularly win Pub of the Year from the local CAMRA branches. Their secret? Drinking there is more pleasant than drinking across the road.

My local does all that though the toilets are small and old but hey at least clean, no graffiti, the stall has a seat and paper.

As an economist who’d probably love talking with Ray’s brother, you might find an answer if you can find any spoon’s that closed for some random reason–i.e. it burned down, some kind of disaster struck it, flooding it. Then you compare the performance of nearby pubs before and after the event to get more solid estimate of how this looks. Would be a fun project for a stats/economics grad student.

There was one that shut pretty suddenly in Longsight, south Manchester, about twenty years, the Sir Edwin Chadwick, after someone they’d barred returned to argue the point with his gun, but then most of the pubs round there have since shut, some for similar reasons.

Imagine most of the pubs being shut down because the Police failed to catch someone brandishing a firearm.

Comments are closed.