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Not far from me there’s a branch of ALDI which has become so popular that at busy times they’re queueing to get into the car park. This demonstrates the widely-reported trend that discount supermarkets have been booming while their mainstream competitors such as Morrisons and Tesco have seen a decline in sales. MP Douglas Carswell argues here that this is a good example of the free market at work, with new competitors coming in and challenging the established players.
I was musing to what extent the rise of Wetherspoon’s is a parallel in the pub market. To some extent it is, with them have come from nowhere to be a powerful force, and putting value for money at the forefront of their offer. However, on further consideration I would say it is really more like the original growth of the big supermarket chains – applying a consistent format to all their stores and using bulk buying power to drive down prices and undercut a miscellany of independent competitors.
While the erstwhile Big Six brewers acquired massive tied estates and often applied insensitive corporate design identities, they never did anything like the same standardisation of how their pubs were actually run. Most, of course, remained tenancies which are essentially independent businesses, but even in their managed divisions they never really sought to roll out a single formula across huge numbers of pubs. In general, they promoted their beer, not their pubs. The one exception was in dining chains like Beefeater and Brewer’s Fayre, but even the biggest of these never got beyond the low hundreds.
Indeed, Wetherspoon’s formula of applying basically the same trading format to what is now nearly 1000 pubs from Penzance to Wick is an entirely new innovation in the pub business, and one that has so far proved extremely successful. They don’t tend to do mass-media advertising, but by now pretty much every pubgoer must know what to expect from a Spoons. Yet nobody has come remotely close to copying them – the Goose chain originally started by Bass being the best-known attempt – and they have now become so large that any me-too competition would stand little chance of success.
It’s interesting to reflect, though, that the current Wetherspoon template didn’t emerge fully-formed from the outset. Initially, they were very much London and South-East based, and it wasn’t really until the mid-90s that they began to expand outside that area. The very first Spoons I encountered was the Bell in Norwich in the Spring of 1995, and their first pub in the Greater Manchester area, the Moon Under Water on Deansgate, opened later that year.
In the early years, while always offering decent value, I don’t recall them having the reputation for cutting-edge prices that they later acquired. And it’s only relatively recently that they have turned themselves into mini beer exhibitions. In the early days their beer range tended very much to major on the usual suspects from the bigger independent brewers, and initially the staple cask beer was Younger’s Scotch Bitter. They key selling points at first were that they were clean, served real ale, had no music, were open all day and served food all day – a combination that in those days was very hard to find, especially in London where the Big Six had large numbers of pubs that seemed to be run with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.