Why Dry January is no longer a period of doom and gloom

By Sara Hussein

- Last updated on GMT

Dry January can bring many exciting opportunities to businesses
Dry January can bring many exciting opportunities to businesses

Related tags: Pubs, Alcoholic beverage

The emptiness of a pub in January after a hectic Christmas can strike fear into the heart of any licensee but perhaps this month has the potential to be as fruitful as any other when pubs make the most of the opportunities

Forget the doom and gloom that comes with the onset of Dry January. With a health kick and a new market of moderate drinkers emerging, pubs are embracing new opportunities and profits during this ‘quiet’ time of the year.

After the festive season, January always comes around abruptly. Many operators dread the prospect of a quiet night at the pub after serving a constant flow of drinks, night after night, during the run-up to Christmas.

The facts speak for themselves and they don’t paint a pleasant picture. According to CGA Strategy, January is the worst performing month in terms of on-trade sales. According to a CGA surrvey of 377 licensees, two thirds claimed their sales suffered as a result of Dry January.


Indeed, sales were 15.9% lower than the average month during the rest of the year in 2015. These figures range across all alcoholic drink categories, with LADs wine and spirits sales falling by around 33% this month compared to December 2015. On the other hand, soft drinks suffered less after Christmas, dropping by 18.4%. (Source: CGA OPM to 3/12/16).

Despite this drop in wet sales, operators remain unstirred by these figures – if anything, they seem to be embracing them. “I wouldn’t say there is a huge loss in alcohol sales, it is the usual average we expect every year after the Christmas season,” says Craft Beer Co general manager Grant Chidzey in Clerkenwell, central London.

He adds: “For bars and pubs across the board, January is a very quiet month. Many factors play into that: people have overspent at Christmas and are more cautious with money, or over did it on New Year’s Eve. I’ve worked in pubs and bars before and, generally, it’s been the same for years and years.”

General manager John Perry at the Queen Charlotte in Windsor, Berkshire, also remains calm as soon as the words “Dry January” – the health movement that first loomed in 2011 – are uttered: “It’s not as bad as people make out actually.”

Craving social interaction

A finalist in the 2016 GBPA Best Spirits category, Perry claims that despite seeing drink sales dropping in January, people still crave social interaction with others and will find alternative reasons to visit the pub.

Perry adds: “Dry January is something that we don’t really worry too much about, we seem to hold up pretty steady. But, if you’re offering value in other ways, people will still come to the pub.”

The Dry January campaign, which challenges people to swap the pub for the gym to raise money for charity, did not pick up momentum until 2012. Last year, one in six Britons took part in Dry January.

The campaign undoubtedly brought major concerns to the pub trade when it began, because it encouraged drinkers to try to give up the pub completely for the next few weeks.

This meant potential damage to businesses, with many operators awaiting January with a sense of dread.

However, unlike previous years, the charity as well as the pubs seemed to adapt to the idea of treating January as a general detox period. Therefore, rather than avoiding the pub completely, both started to work together around this winter health trend.

Key Facts

  • 15.9%:​ The decline in pub sales in January compared to the average over the rest of the year 
  • 21.4%:​ people claimed losing weight/ healthier eating as their most important new year resolution
  • 18.4%:​ The fall in sales of soft drinks in January, Compared to a 33% fall for LADs, wine and spirits
  • Next to water, alcohol-free beer is the healthiest thing you could drink in a pub according to moderate drinking campaign Club Soda

Alcohol Concern chief executive Joanna Simons said: “We positively encourage people to go to the pub and enjoy themselves but choose non-alcoholic beverages.

“Lots of pubs have embraced the campaign since it began and are using it as a chance to entice people who might think there is nothing being offered for them.”

She adds: “Alcohol Concern’s Dry January campaign represents a great opportunity for pubs to show that you can cater for the non-drinker by offering a range of non-alcoholic drinks, mocktails and hot winter drinks.”

In the past, there has been a worrying belief among operators and bartenders that demand for low or non-alcoholic drinks – beers of 3% ABV or less, under 8% ABV for wine and under 3% ABV for cider – was non-existent.

The latest figures beg to differ. According to alcohol advice group Drinkaware, one in four people are thinking of or trying to cut their alcohol intake.

At the same time a separate survey of more than 100 consumers – called Nudging Pubs by moderate drinking group Club Soda – claims 66% of pub and bar customers want to see lower-sugar drinks options.

Making the supply and demand factors match has been a struggle in the past, but there seems to be progress says Club Soda co-founder Laura Willoughby.

“We believe it’s about customers having a conversation with pubs about what they would like to see in stock,” she says.

A new wave of drinkers

Club Soda, launched in 2015, has just announced its Mindful Pub Crawl, a new initiative for pubs that offer low or non-alcoholic products to sign up to its official pub guide. With 200 pubs already signed up in London, Willoughby and co-founder Jussi Tolvi are pushing a new wave of drinkers – the mindful ones – into the spotlight, who were probably neglected before.

“We tried to promote a really positive conversation between the customer and the pub, marrying that demand and supply. The market is shifting, under-25s are drinking less than anyone else and it’s creating an exciting new dimension to the market.”


Interest has not only been limited to London, says Willoughby, there has been widespread attention from all parts of the country from operators who are keen to put their pub on the map for a new style drinkers.

By undergoing a self-assessment, a pub is given a score out of five, one being the worst. Each score is an indication of how many low or non-alcoholic products it stocks and what brands it has on its shelves.

Willoughby adds: “What we’re finding is that pubs that put effort into thinking about how they’re going to get people through the door in January tend to do quite well.


“I think it’s about pubs being confident about what they’ve got to offer in January, rather than thinking everybody’s skint or on a health kick.”

Whether people stick to their diet or drink more moderately during this time of year, operators also see Tryanuary, a campaign that encourages drinkers to seek out independent breweries, beers, bars and bottle shops to try new drinks.

One beer producer in particular, Chiltern Brewery in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, has been hosting its annual celebration of beer across the month to encourage people to try new beers, including
porters, stouts and ales.

With months of preparation poured into the event, the brewery sources high-quality dark beers from across the country and has gained popularity over the past six years, bringing roughly a 30% increase to the business.

Chiltern Brewery managing director George Jenkinson says: “It gives our customers the chance to taste some beers that they may have heard of, but would never get the chance to try, or ones they never head of from different breweries.”

It’s not all doom and gloom

He adds: “Dry January isn’t all doom and gloom, and shouldn’t be. Pubs are all about hospitality and making people relax.

We help people get away from the daily grind and forget about all the doom and gloom of January. What pubs have to do is to adapt to what customers are looking for. We can’t just stay static.”

Dry January does not seem to be a threat to businesses as much as it used to. With a general health trend growing stronger every year and a new market of moderate drinkers emerging, pubs are adapting to change and embracing the new challenges with open arms.

We should be excited about the new business prospects January can bring.

Related topics: Other operators, Marketing, Beer

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