The British Beer and Pub Association’s British Beer Barometer statistical series goes back to 1997. If, in that year, anyone had suggested that, over the next twenty years, the amount of beer sold in British pubs would more than halve, they would have been accused of unrealistic doom-mongering. But that is exactly what has happened. The latest figures are for the first quarter of this year, so in that period of just over 19 years, the total sales have fallen by 51%. In the first ten years, it was 28.4%, and in the following 9¼ it was 31.5%. There has been a net loss of about 20,000 pubs but, given that many new bars have opened, the gross loss of identifiable pubs that were in existence in 1997 must be at least 25,000. By any standards, that has to be regarded as a disaster for the industry.
While the pressures may have eased a little in recent years, it would be complacent to imagine that the trade is in any sense out of the woods. The average annual fall over the past four years has still been 2.1%. It’s probably fair to say that the direct effect of the smoking ban on footfall in pubs has now worked through the system, but even so many pubs that are still open will have been left in a much weaker financial position than they otherwise would be.
The general tide of anti-alcohol sentiment in society continues unabated. Employers are increasingly intolerant of any drinking whatsoever by their staff during the working day, leading to the ever further erosion of the traditional weekday lunchtime couple of pints. The idea that alcohol consumption is per se bad for you continues to gain currency, with an ever higher proportion of people claiming not to drink at all. Even when alcohol is consumed, it is increasingly seen as something that has to be ringfenced from any kind of responsible activity, which all too often means doing so at home rather than while out and about. For twenty years, a Sword of Damocles has hung over the English pub in the form of cutting the drink-drive limit, which has often been mooted, but not so far implemented south of the Border. What the precise impact would be is open to debate, but it would unquestionably be very much in the downward direction.
It’s also important not to forget the role of demographic churn as an agent of change. Many of the shifts in patterns of pubgoing are not due to existing customers changing their behaviour, but to new entrants to the population of potential pubgoers having very different habits from those whose custom has been lose due to age or infirmity.
Given all these pressures, it’s hard to see the story of the next twenty years being much different from the previous ones. Extrapolate the same trend for another 19¼ years to the middle of 2036, and annual barrelage will have shrunk from 12.8 million to 6.3 million. Even a 1% decline per year would still leave the trade 18% down come 2036. That may be considerably better than anything seen in the past twenty years, but it still wouldn’t really qualify as good news. Of course by then I will be in my late seventies, so whether I will still be in a position to be going to pubs is open to question, even assuming that there are any pubs left for me to go to.
Of course, forecasting the future by extrapolating from the past is always prone to pitfalls. It could be that the trade “bottoms out” at a level not much below where it is at present. And it’s always possible that some kind of “black swan” event could turn things right around. After all, in 1959 the continued slow decline of the pub in the face of competition from staying in to watch the telly seemed assured, but the next twenty years saw the trade almost double, despite it often being a period of economic difficulties. But if there are any straws in the wind indicating a change of direction, they’re very hard to discern.
Or is optimism maybe seen only in terms of the particular, not the general?