MOST press articles about pubs today paint a picture of an industry in decline. Without picking over the bones one more time, it’s easy to see why.
But in the course of putting this issue of SLTN together, I was given a strong sense that maybe things aren’t too bad in our trade after all.
The paper in your hands includes a major, in-depth look at the Scottish on-trade’s best-selling alcohol brands. And, far from illustrating a sector in the grips of depression, it shows that people around the country are continuing to spend some of their hard-earned cash in licensed premises, be it pubs, restaurants, hotels or nightclubs.
According to a survey from CGA Strategy, based on a diverse sample of more than 500 on-trade outlets, every major drinks category bar two (RTDs and imported whiskey) grew over the period, with sales up from £2.1 billion to around £2.3bn.
Draught lager, that great barometer of pub health, added a few million pounds to sales, as did Scotch, rum, stout, whisky, vodka, Tequila and speciality spirits – a broad category covering everything from Sourz to Southern Comfort.
Wine looked to have made the biggest gain, adding a whopping £97m of sales in the year to May 14, compared to the 52 weeks to May 2010.
Of course, statistics can be misleading.
It’s often said that people see what they want to see in stats; critics may also contend that the sample isn’t reliable or representative of the entire on-trade.
I’m also not daft enough to think the survey signals a great renaissance in the on-trade. But at the same time our team has had enough conversations with suppliers this year to allow us to conclude that some pretty good stuff is going on amid the economic gloom.
We are frequently told that, since the recession, people are visiting bars less often, but are willing to splash out a little more when they do.
The theory of the so-called ‘weekend millionaire’ does sound plausible, particularly if one considers that sales of some products are said to be going up at the same time as pubs are closing.
If there is merit in this assertion then the trade itself – operators and suppliers – ought to take some of the credit.
Consumers aren’t arriving in bars ready to splash the cash on any old rubbish, they want a good experience. And increasingly that’s what they’re getting, thanks to the focus suppliers and licensees are putting on product quality, whether it’s a long mixed drink or a pint of premium beer.
Moreover, it’s not just drinks quality the best operators are aiming to deliver.
The trade’s ‘best in class’ are working hard to provide memorable all-round experiences in their outlets, from food and interior design to music and entertainment.
Money may well be tight, but there are many people who don’t mind spending a bit more if they’re convinced they’re getting value for money.
The licensed trade – and the economy generally – faces too many challenges to view the road ahead as anything other than rocky.
But in my view our best outlets are still providing a lucrative route to market for leading brands, and I for one will drink to that.