A little of the European spirit?

The British are losing their enthusiasm for the pub as a pure drinking establishment, with increasing numbers visiting them to eat a meal Рperhaps a sign that a caf̩ society is beginning to take root

Last week’s introduction of extended licensing laws may be causing controversy in certain quarters, yet the pub industry has been no stranger to radical change in recent years.

Pubs and bars have undergone a design revolution, labelled the “feminisation of social space”. Curtains and screens obscuring patrons’ antics from innocent passers-by have disappeared, replaced by lightened and brightened interiors in an attempt to make pub-going more approachable – especially for women. Meanwhile, the rise of pubs as credible food outlets has been very much part of this revolution and extending opening hours and creating smoke-free environments represent further steps in the same direction.

TGI data gathered over recent years shows that while this revolution has taken root, the changing social role that the pub plays is not to everyone’s taste.

Overall the number of over-18s who are most committed to the view that they “really enjoy a night out at the pub” has declined by more than 20 per cent in the past five years. In 2000, 6.7 million adults agreed with this statement; this has fallen to 5.2 million in 2005. Broadly this shift is across all age groups – with the exception of 55- to 64-year-olds, perhaps explained by the fact there has been a 28 per cent increase in single- person households within this age band in the past five years. A reinvigorated need for a social life outside the home may be the driving force behind pub-going for this significant minority in the population.

At the same time, the number of people agreeing with the statement “most of my drinking is done at home” has grown by 25 per cent – rising from 18.2 million in 2000 to 22.7 million in 2005. This shift in drinking location is further emphasised by the growth in the amount of alcohol bought for home consumption. Not only do more people buy wine than they did five years ago, they also buy it more frequently – the number of people who buy wine “once a week or more” is up from 5.5 million to 6.7 million since 2000. Similarly there is an upward trend for those buying spirits more often than two or three times a month (3.1 million to 3.4 million), while off-trade buyers of beer and lager, which historically many people went to pubs to drink, are more stable.

Those living in the South are the most likely to be drinking more alcohol at home than in a pub. The reverse is true for the North-east and Scotland.

The differences between smokers and non-smokers are often marked when looking at a range of drinking-related attitudes. Generally smokers are more than twice as likely to believe that the point of drinking is to get drunk and are some 28 per cent more likely than non-smokers to say that they “really enjoy a night out at the pub”. However, there is little difference in this respect between non-smokers and heavy smokers, who are 20 per cent less likely to feel able to enjoy the pub than their more moderate;y smoking counterparts.

While pubs may be losing some attraction as pure drinking establishments, they appear to be making up for it in terms of becoming a natural choice as a place to eat. The number of those visiting a pub for lunch in the previous three months has grown by 29 per cent in the past five years. Evening dining is also showing significant growth. Given that this expansion of trade has been disproportionately among the higher social groups, pub clientele is today noticeably more upmarket than it was five years ago, especially in the evenings.

By tracking consumer activity throughout the day TGI also reveals that, of about the 1.5 million people who claim to be in a restaurant, bar, pub or café between 1pm and 3pm, almost half say they are keen patrons of pubs. Of the 1.9 million in similar establishments between 9pm and 11pm this proportion rises to more than two-thirds. The same data reveals there are some 300,000 who are in the pub after 11pm, more than three-quarters of whom are pub regulars and less than one in five being those who claim they mostly drink at home.

So how far have we got to go to create the “café society” – the goal for the social engineers behind recent licensing changes? The answer is a long way. Equivalent TGI measurement in mainland Europe shows the French are twice as likely to be in a restaurant/bar/pub/café as are the British between noon and 2pm. In the evening the British are as likely as the Spanish to be eating and drinking out of home – both being about a third more likely than the Germans. After 11pm, however, residents of the Iberian peninsula are almost four times more likely to be out. Only time will tell if this is because of a, now eliminated, difference in licensing regulation or simply down to a more conducive climate.

Graham Abbott, director of on-trade sales and marketing agency Box Marketing

The majority of pubs have failed to significantly improve their proposition for decades. They have been left behind by other sectors of the leisure industry, and the result has been growth in the number of bars and a discerning public buying more cheaply from the off-trade sector. However, there is tremendous opportunity for drinks brand owners to capitalise on this current malaise. This is because consumers want better drinks experiences. The simple act of putting ice in cider has increased sales of the drink by 60 per cent this year alone. Brands that work at improving distribution, presentation and promotion in pubs not only significantly increase their own sales, they provide the best solution for turning around the fortunes of the pub industry.

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