Inside Track by Peter Martin
How can the pub market present a new image when it spends so much time looking in different directions? This week The Times published a positive picture of the 21st century public house. It surveyed 100 English pubs with smoking bans in place in advance of next year's prohibition and found that their profits had risen by an average of 50%, with food sales up 80%. The Times contacted pubs that had banned smoking within the past three years. Nine out of ten landlords said they were selling more food, and 78% said overall sales were up. Nearly half said that drinks profits had increased, by 37% on average, while a third said that drinks profits had stayed the same. Just 4% said that they had lost money. All positive stuff and a demonstration that embracing change and focusing on winning new customers can pay off, even for “back street boozers”, as The Times' examples highlighted. What a contrast then to the reaction from Scotland to the news that cigarette sales in Scottish pubs had been unaffected by the Scottish smoking ban and sales in shops had actually increased since the ban took effect. Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, seemed to take delight in the news: “These figures confirm what we predicted all along. It is clear the ban has not delivered what they said it would.” As they have found in Ireland, increased cigarette sales are as likely to do with the influx of migrant workers from eastern Europe than any rebellious tendency by locals to take up smoking or smoke more in the face of restriction. But that's not really the point. The ban is not going to go away, if anything it will only get tighter over time. No-one suggests the transition is going to be easy and there will be casualties, but that's the business reality. The truth is also that the smoking ban merely spotlights a long-term failing business model as alcohol sales out of home continue to fall. Sadly the SLTA still seems to be fighting yesterday's battles rather than looking to the future. The image that the SLTA presents is of a pub industry stuck in time and resistant to change. Unfortunately, that picture is supported by a recent on-line survey by The Publican trade paper, which revealed that the majority of licensees have so far done nothing to prepare for a smoking ban. This also seems to be the negative image that persists in the mind of government, the media and the public. That was underlined by the initial reaction of government to the latest under-age drinking statistics. Twenty-nine per cent of pubs and 18% of supermarkets were guilty of selling to under-18s during the latest test purchase sting operations, carried out between May 8 and June 8 this year. The first reaction of Licensing minister Shaun Woodward was to lump everyone together and issue a mass admonishment. “Too many supermarkets, bars, clubs and pubs continue to sell alcohol to under 18s. This is not acceptable,” he concluded. This was despite the fact that two companies used to being labelled among the “bad boys” of the industry, Regent Inns, owner of the Walkabout bar chain, and late night venue operator Luminar, both registered a zero per cent failure rate. Surely this was something to be picked out, praised and held up as an example to the rest? Only latterly did Home Office minister Vernon Coaker offer some encouragement, saying he was pleased with progress and the attitude of the industry. The trouble is that the positive examples set by the good guys, the progressives, are too often submerged and lost among the old stereotypes. Breaking free of the past is not easy, especially when a significant portion of the market still seems to be living there. There has been much talk about the need for the industry to speak with one voice. Trouble is, what voice? It may be time for the forward-looking operators to cut loose and for companies, and individuals, to take responsibility themselves to promote the positives of the market to government, the media and the wider public? It is becoming a recurring theme. As I wrote last time, we are an industry in need of heroes and we shouldn't be afraid to make the best operators into heroes, whether it's the corporates with the best practice or the individual publicans picked out by The Times. So well done to Ivan and Samantha Jenkins, who run the non-smoking Blackburn Arms on the edge of Liverpool city centre, who say: “We have a whole new audience now. We were a backstreet boozer that was becoming a bit tired. Now we get a lot of young people and professionals coming in. We didn't serve food before, but now we do our turnover, including drinks, has seen a five-fold increase.” That's the future.