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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Happy Hour Again

You must have seen the thing in the news the other day about the call to ban happy hours.  There's been quite a bit of debate about the fact that cut-price drinks are next in the firing line for the current gaggle of moral crusaders.

The positions on both side of the debate are very familiar and not worth repeating here.  What I think is fascinating is that the pub happy hour is the only aspect of this issue that anyone is talking about, when in fact the call from MPs has been for a ban on happy hours AND cut-price deals in supermarkets.  Any sane observer of the British drinking experience knows that it's ten bottles of Carlsberg for a fiver in Asda that's causing far more trouble than half-price pints between six and seven, but on the whole that's been ignored yet again.  

No doubt the pub industry will be up in arms about this - it's yet another example about how the media pick on the pub.  Yet again, the real culprits - the supermarkets - are getting away with murder.

But I think it's not that simple.  I think the reason for the imbalance in coverage is that the pub remains so culturally potent.  

As of this year we drink half our alcohol at home.  The latest slew of surveys shows that, for the first time in British history, a slight majority of people prefer drinking at home rather than in the pub.  But nobody wants to talk about supermarkets - they're boring.  The pub and the happy hour are cultural institutions.  To anyone outside the alcohol industry, that aspect of the current proposals is far more newsworthy, far more emotive, than whether or not Tesco's is going to get its wrists slapped.  

Yes, we should constantly remind anyone in a position to affect the alcohol trade that cheap deals in supermarkets are where the problem really lies.  But we should actually take comfort from the fact that people only want to talk about pubs.  When the regulation of what happens in your local boozer is no longer deemed newsworthy, that's when we really need to start worrying.

10 comments:

The Beer Nut said...

What exactly is it that these sane observers have observed about the Carlsberg in Asda and the alleged trouble it causes?

I genuinely would like to be "reminded" that the trouble lies with the supermarkets. It's just I've never seen the problem laid out in the first place, beyond bald statements that "cheap deals in the supermarkets are where the problem really lies", and insulting Hogarth pastiches.

Can you set out the chain of causality between cheap supermarket booze and problem drinking please, Pete? Or point me to where somebody else already has? Everyone else is ignoring me.

BLTP said...

I'll put my lenin hat and che t-shirt for amoment and say one reason the print media lays off super markets is that tescos et al pay for full page ads to advertise 2 for 1 deals on cases of stella everyweek. Maybe if Yates wine lodge did the same for there wkd boozeathons they wouldn't get mentioned (i know this simplification but the pressure not to piss of big advertsiers is ever present in the medias minds and must effect their editorial policy to a degree)

Pete said...

A very fair challenge, Beer Nut - and one that obliges me to be more specific and clear than I was in my post.

I think the first thing to say is that overall, the binge drinking issue is blown out of all proportion by then media - govt figures show a long-term downward trend in the number of people drinking in excess of recommended daily unit guidelines, with the biggest fall coming form the much-maligned 18-24 year old male age group. The number of people aware of unit guidelines is increasing. The number of people who are teetotal is increasing. So the whole apportioning of blame between on and off-trade has to be looked at within the framework of this being a declining problem, unlike many would have us believe.

I haven't seen one definitive study on the effect of cheap booze in supermarkets but I've seen an awful lot of circumstantial evidence that it does encourage binge drinking. Three main points:

One, my day job is in advertising and I've studied grocery promotions in detail. Every study on price promotion generally shows that if you cut price, people buy more - no big surprise there. The question is, does this mean people stock up for later, or does it mean they consume more? People may think at the time that they're buying stuff in to save money when the price goes back up. But overwhelmingly, they simply eat or drink more quickly than they normally would. These studies tend to be aggregated over many grocery categories but we can safely conclude that cut-price drinks promos make people drink faster than they otherwise would.

The second piece is anecdotal - for my last book I went out with self-confessed binge drinkers in Barnsley, where binge drinking is supposedly a big problem (I actually had a fantastic time and saw very little anti-social behaviour, but it has to be said the whole place was off its collective tits.) I also know several young people currently at university (they're the kids of friends, rather than direct friends. When the hell did THAT happen?). All agree that it's common price to get tanked up at someone's house before you hit the pubs. They call it 'pre-loading'. It's far cheaper. You may have seen hammered people rolling out of pubs but often they're hammered when they get there. As the bar staff have no idea how much they've already drunk, it's more difficult to spot people in a group who shouldn't really be served.

The third point often cited is that drinking in the pub is regulated and controllable, whereas drinking on the street is uncontrolled. I 75% agree with this, because it depends on the pub. I've had direct experience of the self-policing that goes on in community pubs. No-one wants the police called to their local and no-one wants bouncers on the door. So when young people start being twattish, the regulars will have a quiet word. This happens far less in a town centre vertical drinking shed, but still happens to a degree.

A final observation, having heard a representative of one of the big supermarkets speak at a conference on responsible drinking the other week, is that the supermarket chains are completely unrepentant about their right to sell cheap booze. As far as they are concerned, as soon as someone has taken the alcohol off the premises, whatever then happens is absolutely no concern of theirs. They insist on treating alcohol like it was any other grocery product - people demand cheap prices and we listen to our customers. There is no acknowledgement whatsoever that the consequences of giving someone a potentially lethal amount of alcohol for under a tenner is any different from giving cut price on tins of beans.

Pubs, by contrast, have to behave like upstanding pillars of the community or the police and local licensing authorities are down on them like a ton of bricks, eager to deprive the publican of his livelihood.

Whether you buy my argument or not, I hope it's a bit more useful than Mr P's non-response.

The Beer Nut said...

Thanks Pete. I hope you're not surprised if I have a bit of a pick at that.

On the first point: pubs do this too. In the UK I'll often see boards outside bars yelling about how much cheaper booze is inside compared to other local pubs. While one can decry that particular pub chain, as I've seen the pro-pub lobby do, it still goes to show that the problem is with Places What Sell Drink Cheap And People What Drink It, rather than which type of licence the offending vendor holds.

I really don't see how you can complain that "cut-price drinks promos make people drink faster than they otherwise would" if you're not going to condemn happy hours and on-trade price competition in the same breath for the same reason. They're the same thing.

Unless you factor in point three, of course. Here it seems to me that the pro-pub lobby turn a very blind eye to just how awful so much of the on-trade is. The CAMRA/SIBA vision of softly lit, plushly carpeted local boozers is only a part of what constitutes "pubs". For a hell of a lot of the British population, the pub is the vertical drinking shed: late night, loud-music and bouncers who will indeed have a quiet word with lary punters and turf them out into decent society. Drinking at home, they're more likely to fall asleep on their own sofas, with the piss and vomit safely contained.

I note that in contrast to people drinking regulated in pubs, you have people drinking uncontrolled "on the street". Now, where you consume the Pilsner Urquell you buy from Tesco is your own business, but when I buy beer from the supermarket I tend to drink it at home, out of harms way, rather than on the street.

On the "pre-loading" issue: I'm from Northern Ireland where this is standard practice, always has been, and still is for my friends who live there. As a student I lived in Dublin with fellow-nordies and we still "pre-loaded" because it was our culture. Tragically. And it wasn't because beer was incredibly cheap -- it wasn't: below-cost selling was illegal at the time -- all that mattered was that it was cheaper than the pub, and supermarket beer will always be cheaper than the pub, and the pre-loaders will always pre-load, whether the Stella costs 20p or £1.20.

My point is that saying "pubs good; supermarkets bad" is a false dichotomy. There are plenty of responsible drinkers who will buy cheap beer in the supermarket; there are plenty of anti-social arsewits who only drink in pubs. And while supermarket execs may see no difference between beer and beans, surely you're not going to tell me that every publican feels responsible for each and every ex-customer who has just staggered out the door? They should, perhaps, but that's not the reality, is it?

If anyone believes that strategies like banning deep supermarket discounts and ceasing off sales at 10pm will improve the social fabric, I encourage them to spend a Saturday night in central Dublin.

What we've seen since these controls were brought in is simply more money in the publicans' pockets, and if that is the intention all along, please drop the public interest act.

Laurent Mousson said...

My take on it is that the only responsible way to consider an happy hour is the way it's done in many bars across Italy : provide a free buffet, but no discounts on the beer. A perfect example of this would be the way Birrificio Lambrate in Milan do it.
Usually, it's the good old antipasti selction: baked veg', salads, cheese & biscuits, focaccia, a few chips and pretzels, mortadella, tortillas, and even nice warm pasta.
Nothing fancy, just plain, hearty food, which could easily be adapted in british style.

Encouraging people to eat a bite so they can drink on gently does boost overall sales, as the after-work customers just stay longer instead of just drinking faster. It's so simple it almost appears idiotic, buit it does work, and it certainly does not cost more to the publicans than slashing the price of booze for an hour or two.

The Beer Nut said...

It's common enough in the friendlier Irish pubs: baskets of cocktail sausages, chips and similar delicacies, passed out to the rabble after 6 on a Friday.

Great idea, but not likely to attract punters at the same rate as cheap gargle. In these parts anyway. (Have I mentioned that the real underlying problem is our unhealthy attitude to alcohol?)

Pete said...

Laurent, that just makes me want to move to Italy.

Beer Nut, you hve a point about our pisshead culture, but culture can change - it just takes time. I buy some of your arguments, but coming back to the main point of my post: you believe that pubs and supermarkets are just as bad as each other. I think what pisses off pub people the most is that even if that were true - and I'm not sure it is - in the general media, the pub takes far more stick than supermarkets do. I think that's the main reason why everyone gets so defensive. And for me personally, it's not just about social conscience - it's a very selfish motivation. If pubs keep getting a disproportionate share of the blame for drink-related anti-social behaviour, they're going to get more and more legislation piled on them which is going to drive them further into the ground, and I don't want to be forced to pass a bouncer on the door of my local at any time of day or night, show ID every time I want a drink, or be banned from topping up a glass of wine form the bottle because it's not being dispensed to a measured dose. All these ideas have been suggested as universal recommendations - not just where a problem has been identified - in the latest govt consultation paper on reducing binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. The paper has some recommendations that apply to on and off-trade. It has thirteen recommendations that apply only to pubs. It has two recommendations that apply specifically to supermarkets. And while five pubs are closing every day, Tesco is slowly taking over the world. Anyone who enjoys drinking in pubs needs to start to fight for their right to carry on existing as we currently know them.

The Beer Nut said...

I take your points completely, Pete. But when one reads the UK commentariat it doesn't come across as as "the media and government are being unfair to pubs", it comes across as "supermarkets are are evil, pubs are good". Statements like "the real problem is with the supermarkets" and "supermarkets are more responsible for our bad drinking habits thsn pubs" send a very one-sided message which I think is ultimately unhelpful to the cause of promoting responsible drinking.

And yes: it's very much a cultural thing, which works in reverse where I live. I have the same selfish interests as you, and most of your readers. Except I'm coming from somewhere where your battle has already been lost. When I want good beer, I go to the supermarket or off licence because they sell it. I don't go to the pub because they (almost exclusively) serve rubbish.

I'd qualify your last sentence there by saying "Anyone who enjoys drinking in good pubs needs to start to fight for their right to carry on existing as we currently know them" and I'd add that anyone who enjoys buying good beer anywhere should fight likewise.

Because if you want to see what happens if you don't fight that quarter, hard, it's here on the other side of the Irish Sea. But for as long as your supermarkets are selling you good beer they are not your enemy.

al_uk said...

Pete you may be right about drinking figures with adults but it is very worrying the increasing rates of drinking and binge drinking among the 11-15 years olds. Probably the same report you were quoting for adults http://www.statistics.gov.uk/Children/downloads/DSD.pdf
also shows clearly the levels of drinking among children going up. I worry that you think the binge drinking culture is being blown out of proportion. Increasingly young adults 20-25(ofen female) are reporting to hospitals with liver disease that shows several years of heavy drinking. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7092347.stm
They have livers that resemble those found a decade ago only in older men with a much longer history of drinking. These people are drinking decades worth of alcohol in a few years.

As for the lack of anti-social behaviour in Barnsley..please read the Barnsley Chronicle. It is largely full of court reports of assaults and damage to property caused while drunk.

Though I more than most despise the exageration of news stories from the Daily Mail and other papers of its ilk but we do have a huge alcohol problem among the young and this is storing up problems for the future.

impymalting said...

I saw this in the headlines and was a bit confused as I've never been to a pub with a happy hour. I guess places like Wetherspoons and All Bar One have these? It isn't that common.

It seemed like a straw man when really you can go to any supermarket and for the price of a pint get enough cheap swill to get you hammered.