How to future-proof the high street pub?

By Stuart Stone

- Last updated on GMT

High street closures: Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that, on average, a high street store closed its doors for good every 90 minutes in the first half of 2019
High street closures: Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that, on average, a high street store closed its doors for good every 90 minutes in the first half of 2019
With a swathe of new data revealing the extent to which our town centres are changing, we ask in what way, shape or form can the high street pub survive?

High streets have, historically, been the arteries that help towns and communities survive, with bustling pubs often their fulcrum. Yet a brave new world of goods and services transitioning from brick and mortar to digital domains has seen customers vote with their fingertips rather than their feet in favour of web giants as services – and customers – continue their migration away from the high street.

Research by professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) found that, on average, a high street store closed its doors for good every 90 minutes in the first half of 2019 while only nine per day opened in their place – a net decline of 1,234 chain stores on Britain’s top 500 high streets. Retail now takes up less than a third (30.32%) of high street space according to TogetherMoney.

High street pubs appear to be following suit. Just 3.12% of the average high street’s space is taken up by drinking establishments. In the first half of 2019, pubs were the second highest high street casualty according to PWC with 167 closures against just 71 new openings. 

Yet, in a survey by Visa revealing what about high streets made consumers happy, almost a quarter (22%) cited spending times with friends and family with more than one in five (21%) stating a sense of community. What’s more, half claimed that their high street gives them a sense of pride in their local community.

Often hailed as a bastion of local community, can the pub survive on the high street and in which form can it help get the blood pumping back into Britain’s dormant towns?

Independent spirit on the high street?

According to research by Visa into the state of UK high streets, the number of store openings from retailers boasting more than five outlets nationally on Great Britain’s top 500 high streets, increased by 4.1% year on year. However, the current rate of openings of nine stores per day represents a 47% decrease from the 17 stores per day opening in the first half 
of 2013. 

As such, independent venues have filled the void, according to research by TogetherMoney, now occupying 43% of high street space.

Speaking to The Morning Advertiser​ after the launch of the city's night-time economy blueprint, Manchester’s night czar​ Sacha Lord : “The place where I grew up, Altrincham, in the late ’80s was literally closed down because they opened the Trafford Centre – a huge shopping mall with free parking.

“All of a sudden, business left Altrincham and everybody started going to the Trafford Centre. Overnight, what was a thriving, bustling town just became boarded up. There were antisocial behaviour orders – I think our absolute bastion of culture was a Wetherspoon.

“A visionary came along and did a deal with Trafford Council to reopen and reinvigorate Altrincham market.

“What it has now is a good, substantial food and drink offering – you have loads of independent operators there.

“It became so busy other people clocked on to it and now there’s some amazing, independent, food and drink in Altrincham. What was derelict, only four or five years ago, won best high street in the UK in 2018.”

Pub model evolution

Fleurets’ head of urban markets Kevin Conibear explains that while already playing a significant role, there is huge potential for pubs and other leisure operations to enhance the high street. 

“It is widely reported the retail sector is experiencing challenging conditions, with the rise of online shopping and change in consumer habits,” he says. “However, pubs, restaurants and other leisure activities provide a social dynamic that cannot be replicated away from the high street.

“Pubs present the opportunity to increase dwell time and while, over the past decade, the coffee shop and restaurant presence on our high streets has increased significantly, landlords are increasingly identifying the strength of footfall that pubs create. 

“Planning and licensing policy in high streets needs to be considered, to ensure that increased presence can be achieved. The pub model has evolved considerably, to offer all-day trade and strong food offers, which complement, not detract from their surroundings.”

However, success on the high street is not limited to any one particular style of operation according to Conibear. He argues that a combination of more niche venues, such as brewpubs and gin bars, and all-purpose venues – sustainably tailored to a local clientele – will achieve high street success.

“There is room for a variety of different operations because the potential market has a variety of different demands,” Conibear explains. “Generally, operations with flexible formats, able to cater for a variety of trading styles and at different times of the day will be well-placed.

“Operations that can provide breakfast meetings, to coffee serving, sandwiches and light bites, to full lunchtime restaurant service and after-work drinks as well as night-time food or entertainment will thrive. In addition, specialist operations, such as craft beer or gin bars prove extremely popular and attract people to the high streets.”

Pub market set to reach value in excess of £20bn

According to predictions by MCA Insight​, the UK pub market will reach a value of £23bn​ this year with managed, branded and franchised pubs predicted to contribute 49% of pub market revenue in 2019.

High street mainstay JD Wetherspoon saw like-for-like sales rise by 6.8%​ in the year to 28 July 2019 and revenue increase by 7.4% to £1,818.8m during the same period. 

What’s more, with managed pub giant Stonegate agreeing to buy pubco Ei Group and its 4,000 sites, the operator, which already owns town and city centre brands including Be At One and Slug & Lettuce, looks set to keep high streets populated with pubs.

Wider range of services

Clive Watson of City Pub Group – which operates more than 40 pubs across southern England and Wales in provincial towns and cities like Bath, Brighton, Cambridge, Reading and Oxford – explains pubs must adapt to new consumer demands if they’re to earn their place in town centres.

“Most people are still fairly limited in what they offer – obviously some do it very well but it’s going to take more,” Watson explains.

With high streets full to the brim with coffee shop chains, according to Watson, satisfying consumer demand is now more likely to extend to pubs facilitating Deliveroo orders, offering casual working environments or assisting with Amazon deliveries. 

“The coffee revolution has been complete – we don’t need any more – so the high street has got to widen its reach in terms of being more than just coffee, food and beverage. If I’m honest I don’t know exactly what that is at the moment. 

“Pubs won’t thrive on the high street, or even survive, if they just stay as they are – they’ve got to evolve, and they’ve got to offer different services.

“Another thing pubs can do is offer a proper working environment, maybe having shared facilities so people can come in and use it as a place to work, helping build up a local customer base, with these people then meeting their friends after work.

“As some amenities close down, they’ve got to be ready to step in and replace them. High streets are going to go to mixed use. It makes a lot of sense that eventually high streets are going to become mixed use with more places reverting to being residential and small offices.

“High streets will become more residential, which, ultimately, will be good for pubs, but that process is going to take quite a long time.”

Premium café bars may be the right move for operators

While some might say the high street coffee chain revolution is running out of steam, the continued success of the licenced café suggests that it could be better latte than never for pub operators looking to launch a premium, all-day, venture.

According to CGA Insight and AlixPartners’ quarterly Market Growth Monitor, the number of high-end bars and licensed cafés increased by 4.1% in the year to March 2019, with pubs and bars boasting a ‘premium-leaning’ offer and that ‘flex’ their operation to suit all times of day performing particularly well on the high street.

CGA and AlixPartners’ report ​cited the rollout of groups such as Arc Inspirations – the operator behind Manahatta, Banyan Bar & Kitchen and The Box – The Alchemist and The New World Trading Company as well as the arrival of ambitious smaller brands as key drivers of this premium, all-day movement.

Spotlight graph for stu

High street hubs

Pubs that have struck a balance between going above and beyond in adapting to these changes on their high streets while championing traditional communal values have, in some instances, already made a difference in reviving their high streets.

As highlighted by the judges of the High Street Awards, a number of pub operators are already transcending a pub’s traditional role in this way.

Among the 40 high streets shortlisted in this year’s Champion High Street category, and in the running to win £15,000, is Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley of Wales. According to judges, high street pub the Lion Inn has been integral to the town being shortlisted.

“Pubs play a really important role in supporting our high streets as valuable social hubs,” Sundeep Kaur, head of UK & Ireland merchant services at Visa and chief judge of the Great British High Street Awards 2019 explains. “That, ultimately, increases the sense of community and helps to drive footfall to other local businesses.

“The Lion Inn in Treorchy is an excellent example of a pub innovating for the benefit of its local high street, taking a leading role in connecting schools, community groups and sports teams while championing local causes to help the local economy prosper.

“It’s owner’s entry of Treorchy High Street into the Great British High Street Awards further illustrates its commitment to the evolution of the town’s high street.”

Far from being an isolated example, judges also highlighted the role of Dylans Kings Arms in St Albans, in Hertfordshire, where the town was shortlisted in the Great British High Street Awards’ Champion category in 2018. 

The independent freehouse in the city’s Cathedral Quarter was specifically set up in an area with high footfall on the high street.

This was to encourage a greater footfall, and meant the pub was able to work closely with the other shops on the high street and help to build a community.

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