Inside Track by Mark Stretton
Licensed retail on the UK high street is in decline. Despite the "Booze Britain" newspaper headlines and considerable pressure on pubs and bars to do something about the recent phenomenon of binge drinking, according to TNS, the market analyst, fewer people are visiting Britain’s town centres. The findings, which countenance current popular thinking, are based on 20,000 interviews the group undertakes with consumers each year, which reveal the high street part of the market – defined as a venue in a city centre – was declining in popularity. Less people are hitting the town on a Friday and Saturday night. The findings were presented to the industry last week by TNS’s Kevan Mulcahey at the Key Issues for Licensed Retail conference, organised by Martin Info. He told an audience of key individuals from the pub sector that problem drinking as a growing epidemic in Britain’s town centres was largely a myth. "The high street is declining; it is losing share of visits, occasions and volume consistently over time. It is not as strong as it once was," he said. The research also revealed that people don’t visit the pub as often as they used to, driven by a number of social factors such as the aging population, competition for leisure time and money, and also the growing importance of the home to consumers. And when they do visit the pub it is increasingly less to consume alcohol "heavily" (that’s binge drinking to the Daily Mail), even younger drinkers. So according to TNS, while all the discussion has centred on the issue of excessive consumption as a growing problem, the consumer has been acting differently. This is confusing and unfortunately will be of little comfort to operators. This is not hard data and while consumers are drinking less in volume terms, more is being consumed in alcohol-content terms – drinks are getting stronger. Mulcahey also concedes that when it comes to the high street although people are generally going there less, when they do their behaviour and attitudes may have changed – and not for the better. But then this would seem more of a social problem. In this whole debate it is hard to know where fact finishes and fiction starts. Many operators feel they have been fighting phantoms with the truth for some time. But it is also clear that operators are starting to take a more pragmatic approach to the issue, fuelled by a desire to be a perceived solver, and not creator, of social problems. While paying for police as a general concept is still completely unpalatable to practically all bar and pub retailers – which is understandable given the considerable taxes leveraged from this industry – companies will help fund extra policing. Ultimate Leisure pays for extra police in Newcastle, Steve Thomas, chief executive of Luminar, Britain’s biggest bar and club operator disclosed at the Key Issues conference that his company is funding police in one town with a particular problem and Yates Group has offered to do the same in Nottingham and Swinton, Greater Manchester. But is Booze Britain a myth or reality? To say there are not alcohol-related problems in some town centres does not wash. To say there is an epidemic fuelled by the drinks industry is equally unacceptable. There are some issues and unfortunately the industry is guilty by association. Funding police in specific circumstances is a good proactive step. As my colleague Peter Martin has already suggested the industry may also want to consider funding some hard research so we can really see what is happening. Like other key issues there is an opportunity here for the industry to take the initiative – and some high ground – on problem drinking against the purists and those whose energies seem to focus on banning everything from smoking to sugar.