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I reported recently on the launch of the Pound Pub chain – which in fact is selling a pint for £1.50. However, as I quoted in the comments, first impressions as quoted on the Wetherspoon’s Yahoo Group, were not good:
"Had to go through Atherton on Saturday, so I popped into the Pound Pub to see what it was like – and the place is AWFUL!
"The economies they have made to keep the prices down obviously include not spending any money at all on refurbishment – the place nicks a lick of paint, some polish and new furniture at the very least. Another economy appears to not bother signposting the toilets – the gents turned out to be through three doors, all of which were completely unmarked!
"As for the beers, well since funding doesn’t seem to stretch to pump clips, you have to guess what is available from the shape of the dispenser!! There were 4 handpumps, three of which were out of use, and which had a crudely hand-written note “Wells & Young 4.3%, £2.20 per pint”. Theakstons was advertised (outside the pub), but that turned out to be keg mild.
"To get away quickly I asked for a half of Fosters – but was served a pint!
"One thing the budget does stretch to is satellite TV which was showing the absolutely crucial match of Spurs v West Ham. The place was reasonably full, but hardly anyone was watching.
"I still think the name is great, and the concept is good, but they will have to do a lot better than this if they want to make a success of it!"
Cheapness isn’t a virtue in itself if other aspects of the offer are poor. There’s a big difference between no-frills and grotty. However, as I have said before, over the years the pub trade has collectively shot itself in the foot by continually raising prices by just a little more than the rate of inflation. Recently, though, Wetherspoon’s and, to a more limited extent, Sam Smith’s have shown that there is a demand for an obvious “value proposition” in the market.
In any town, Spoons will have at least a scattering of customers when other pubs are empty. The fact that standard draught beer and cider are generally at least 50p a pint less than the local competition must have a part to play in that. Likewise, in the right location, a Sam’s pub will be a magnet for older male customers. The Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place remains busy and bustling despite there being four other closed pubs and bars within 100 yards.
In the days when Holt’s were famous for their bargain prices and no-frills boozers (including the customers) it was said that you could open a Holt’s pub virtually anywhere and that characteristic Holt’s clientele would magically appear. They are now doing their best to take themselves upmarket, of course, and the traditional Holt’s ambiance is fast becoming a thing of the past. However, it underlines the fact that low prices may tempt customers out of the woodwork who otherwise might not go to the pub at all.
Sam Smith’s business plan (if they have one) does not seem to include acquiring others’ cast-off pubs, although there are plenty of locations where I would expect a classic Sam’s pub to do well – the centre of Hazel Grove being a good local example. But you do wonder whether there’s a gap in the market for something in between Sam’s and Spoons which would be on a more intimate scale than Spoons and would be suited to locations where the standard Spoons format would be too big and the demand for food perhaps rather limited.
If ALDI and Lidl can do it to the major supermarkets, some ambitious new entrant could surely do it to the major pub companies. But, as with the discount supermarkets, it would be important to maintain a classless image and avoid giving the impression of somewhere only the lower classes would visit, which is a failing of many current pubs that make a point of cheap prices. Spoons achieve that and, while some Sam’s pubs are dog-rough, the company as a whole doesn’t come across in that way.