What’s wrong with pubs?

The actual question:

As the “Pubs Officer” for the local branch of CAMRA I received this email from a university student –

From: XXX
Sent: 06 March 2013 11:25
To: pubs@camra-afrm.org.uk
Subject: Story on pubs vs supermarkets

Hi Justin,

My name’s xxx. I’m at XXX University. I’m doing a story on how pubs are facing stiff competition from the cheap price of alcohol in supermarkets and finding out whether more people are buying their alcohol and drinking at home instead.

I’ve been looking on the CAMRA website and read about your current campaigns but I wondered if I would be able to speak to you, or anyone from your branch of CAMRA, about the competition between pubs and supermarkets. It would be great to get the point of view of those supporting the great British pub and CAMRA would be the perfect group to speak to. Unfortunately I don’t have long to put this story together so it would be really great to speak to someone if it’s possible – it wouldn’t take longer than 10/15 minutes of your time.

I hope to hear back from you soon.



My response?

Well, being a lawyer as well as a CAMRA member, I couldn’t let assumptions be treated as fact, se here is my reply:

Thanks for this, but I’m not sure I’m the person you want: I appreciate that CAMRA are campaigning against cheaper-than-cost alcohol sales – http://www.camra.org.uk/belowcost – but I don’t think those sales, or the supermarkets more generally, are the threat to pubs that they are made out to be.

Let’s face it: drinking at home on your own or with one or two mates is not comparable with going to the pub – the supermarkets therefore cater for a very different market to the pubs.  Certainly, I do not go to the pub just for alcohol: I enjoy a good beer (hence my membership of CAMRA), and prefer a pub that sells real ale over one that does not – and one that sells a good range of well-kept real ales to one that is tied to a particular brewery; but the real reason I go to the pub is to meet people, socialise, take part in a quiz, have a quiet read of the paper, etc. I cannot get any of that from a supermarket, however cheap their beer is (and it is unlikely to be real ale).

I therefore think the low cost sales by supermarkets is a red herring as far as the pub trade is concerned, though it might be worth banning on other grounds. The pub trades main enemies are –

  1. The ever-increasing cost of beer, above the rate of inflation – the beer escalator duty: http://saveyourpint.co.uk/its-time-to-save-your-pint/what-is-the-escalator/
  2. The social changes that mean there is less demand for pubs: people drink in pubs less than they used to, not (in my view) mainly because they can buy alcohol cheaper in supermarkets, but because social attitudes change; as an example, service clubs (especially Round Tables, but also Rotary clubs) are finding it ever harder to recruit members, because they are becoming a thing of the past. So it is with pubs: in the days when most work was manual labour by mainly men, they would stop at the pub on the way home to quench their thirst. Now most work is non-manual, and pubs are more for networking and socialising; there is less need for the quantity of pubs as a result.
  3. The way in which publicans who lease their pubs are squeezed by the freehold owners: the freeholders tend to be “PubCos” such as Enterprise Inns and Punch Taverns, who make most of their money from the rents they charge (though they also take a cut from the premium prices the publicans have to pay for the beers and other drinks they are “tied” into buying. In the past, when most pub freeholds were owned by breweries, they were seen as much as outlets for the beers that the freeholder produced as a means of collecting rent
  4. The recession: people simply have less money, so have to be careful in how they spend it

Cheap alcohol from supermarkets is a relatively small problem by comparison.

In Tenterden, we are lucky enough to have four pubs –

  1. The William Caxton, which is tenanted; the freeholder is Shepherd Neame, and the publican is tied to selling only Shepherd Neame beers, bought at a higher price than non-tied pubs could buy. It (currently) has no food offering, is at the far end of the High Street, and has very little parking space. It is probably the least busy pub as a result, though it is a good “local”
  2. The Vine Inn, which is managed; again the freeholder is Shepherd Neame, but (a) the beer prices are fixed by Shepherd Neame and (b) they can sell a “guest beer” on occasions. They have a good food offering and are busy at lunchtimes, but not so busy in the evenings unless there is a special event on (a quiz, Valentines Day, etc)
  3. The White Lion Hotel, which is also managed. The freeholder is Marstons, which owns (I think) four breweries. It sells a range of beers from those breweries, changing the range every month or so, and always has a selection of six real ales to choose from. It also has a good food offering (and is a genuine hotel), so is always busy with guests and diners, as well as drinkers
  4. The Woolpack Hotel, which is tenanted. The freeholder is Enterprise Inns. Until recently, it was very run down, had a very poor food offering, and frankly was a dive!  Recently, it was taken over by a local family, who have thoroughly improved the décor, refurbished the letting rooms, and tidied up. They offer three semi-regular real ales at a time, and have an excellent food offering. They also run a fortnightly quiz (which is packed). They are very busy, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, due to the atmosphere. They charge slightly more than the other pubs for their beer, but this does not deter people: they come for the atmosphere and, of course, once a venue is seen as the place to be, it encourages even more business away from the other venues.

We also have a Tesco superstore. If price competition were the deciding factor, we would not have three thriving pubs as well (plus the William Caxton, which I fear will always struggle), but we do. Long may that continue.  If it does not, I reckon the problems will be one or a combination of those I have listed, not supermarkets selling cheap alcohol.

I hope that helps – give me a ring if you need anything clarified

– Justin

Am I wrong?





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