Understanding who visits pubs, why they choose certain venues, when they go out for a drink and once they are there, what makes a great experience for them is one of the fundamental building blocks in creating a successful and sustainable pub business. Certainly in the initial phase of taking on a pub, your business plan will be informed by this knowledge.
Drawing on the wealth of information the pub industry has gathered from its constituent parts (pubs and brewers) this guide will give even the most experienced publican a comprehensive insight into the UK pub market and its’ customers purchasing behaviour, especially in these days of “just about managing” on ever decreasing discretionary incomes.
To make this easier I’ve broken the broad adult population of the UK into six main categories, which most market researchers agree on:
- Young & Free
- Nesting Couples
- SWAGs (Single Wise & Grown-Up)
- Mums & Dads
- Empty Nesters
Whilst it’s helpful to know whom one’s enemies are, in the pub industry we concentrate on who our friends are. As you progress through this guide you’ll get lots of top tips and industry expert-level advice, so if you’re planning on buying or running a pub or if you’re already ensconced in your own pub read on…
Young & Free
Profile: 18-25, single, no children, carefree and with no long-term commitments. These consumers have an above average proportion of discretionary income and are prepared to spend it.
What appeals to them? Up-tempo music and value for money deals.
What do they especially like drinking? Cider, spirits and cocktails.
Which special occasions do they really make the most of? Live Music and Big Screen Sports, Party Nights such as Hallowe’en and rammed weekend nights.
Profile: 20-35, no children, in a “serious relationship”, who still go out a lot but are now planning for the future.
What appeals to them? Visible pricing and venues suitable and welcoming to groups of friends.
Which special occasions do they really make the most of? Mid-week visits (especially for a convenient lunch or evening meal), pub quizzes and because they’re so “loved-up”, Valentine’s Day.
Which marketing might they take notice of? Social media, direct mail, messaging apps and websites.
Profile: 36-54, single/divorced/widowed and no children at home.
What appeals to them? Professional personal service and high-quality food.
What do they especially like drinking? Wine, premium spirits, cask/craft/world beers (especially lager).
Which special occasions do they really make the most of? Wine/Beer/Food festivals, mid-week treats and themed events.
Which marketing might they take notice of? External point of sale material, word of mouth, websites (especially reviews).
Profile: Parents with children living at home who visit pubs and other “on-trade” venues with their progeny.
What do they especially like drinking? Soft drinks, cask/craft beer.
Which special occasions do they really make the most of? Mother’s/Father’s Day and birthdays.
Which marketing might they take notice of? Social media, direct mail, local press and charity fund-raising (especially sponsorship), word of mouth (especially at the school gates).
Mums & Dads
Profile: Parents with children living at home who visit pubs and other “on-trade” venues without their progeny, but with friends, on their own or as a couple.
What appeals to them? An absence of children or young people with high-quality food.
What do they especially like drinking? Wines, spirits and cask/craft beer.
Which special occasions do they really make the most of? Valentine’s Day, wedding (or other) anniversaries/birthdays and pub quizzes.
Which marketing might they take notice of? Social media, direct mail, local press and charity fund-raising (especially sponsorship), word of mouth (especially from work colleagues).
Profile: No children living at home, retired or part-time/gig-economy/self-employed.
What appeals to them? Personal, friendly service, high-quality food and comfortable surroundings (especially soft furnishings).
What do they especially like drinking? Wines and cask/craft beer.
Which marketing might they take notice of? Increasing use of social media, direct mail, local press and word of mouth.
Pub Customer Behaviour Trends
Most people can make choices with what they do with their leisure time and how/where they spend their hard-earned dosh. (This won’t apply to most publicans as they don’t get leisure time because they are too busy running their respective pubs).
The pub remains the number one destination for “out of home” activities in the UK, despite all the headlines one reads about pubs permanently closing.
On-trade visits have plateaued somewhat over the past couple of years with roughly a third of the adult UK population visiting pubs; shopping (31%), coffee shops (30%), and playing sport (22%) being the next three most popular activities.
There has been significant growth from certain customer profiles (Families 36%, SWAGs 42% and Empty Nesters 39%); however, there has been substantial decline in other profiles (Young, Free & Singles -6% in the last 3 years, Nesting Couples -7%) which only goes to prove savvy publicans will need to find ways/products/services which are relevant and attractive to the next generation of clientele.
What Makes A Great Pub (According To Customers)
It will not surprise you if your food/drink offer is poor, your toilets dirty and your staff make Basil Fawlty look like a paragon of customer service, people won’t visit your pub a second time.
Getting the essentials right every time customers visit is vital to the success of any pub; however, your understanding of what makes a great pub may be at variance with your likely customer-base’s understanding of what attracts them to your pub.
Thousands of customers have contributed to any number of surveys and scored what is essential, important or on their “wish-list” of things which affect their choice of pub. Concentrating on those who scored eight (or more) out of ten, these are the things most people really want from the pubs they patronise:
- Quality of food – 79%
- Value for Money – 78%
- Cleanliness – 78%
- Type of food on offer – 73%
- Drinks prices – 71%
- Cleanliness of toilets – 70%
- Friendly staff – 70%
- Location – 69%
- Food prices – 69%
- “Atmosphere”/Ambience – 66%
- Soft Furnishings/Furniture – 54%
- Table Service (even just for drinks) – 49%
- Ample car-parking – 45%
The Wish List
- Beer Garden (or other outside space) – 40%
- Where their friends go – 36%
- Pre-booking tables/drink order apps – 34%
- Healthier food options – 22%
- Award winning venue – 17%
- Good smokers’ area – 17%
How Often Are UK Adults Going Out To The Pub?
Most pub customers visit different pubs at different times for a myriad of reasons: because it’s local to them, it offers the type/quality of food they like, they can watch rugby/football on the big screen TVs or to celebrate their “special occasions”. Only 1% only visit just one pub every year (you know, or will know, them from days like Christmas Day or Mother’s Day). Nearly half the adult UK population visit 5 to 10 venues a year; and a fifth visit 11 or more venues every year.
This leaves most publicans with a dilemma, does one become famous for one particular thing and doggedly pursue one’s business model or be something to (and for) everyone? Understanding why drinkers visit pubs and knowing your competition (either geographically or by sector) is vital. For instance, in urban areas with higher populations one might specialise in a USP for the pub’s food or live music and in rural outlets, where there are fewer pubs and residents, one might become a “destination venue” with a wide-range of goods/services on offer.
One can mix and match the type of customer (SWAGs, Empty Nesters) with the location and their likely repeat custom to create the optimal offering, but only if you know how and why customers might come to your pub.
“Customer Engagement” is an awful stock phrase but how we, as pub landlords or landladies, welcome our customers (or customer engagement) is only the first consideration and it starts with how you and your pub are perceived by potential customers. As I’ve said elsewhere one can have the perfect pub, great food and beer and fantastic staff but if no-one knows about your pub then you won’t build a sustainable and profitable business.
Social media has exploded into our everyday lives in the last ten years and has become, arguably, the becoming most important “marketing channel” for most pubs. Here is how most UK adults find out about new pubs to visit, and you ignore them at your peril:
- Personal recommendation – 63%
- Walk-ins (or what we used to call passing trade) – 56%
- Local press coverage/adverts – 31%
- Internet search engines – 28%
- Social media – 18%
- External advertising (such as A-boards or banners) – 17%
- Direct mail (leaflet drops or additions to free magazines etc.) – 6%
- Messaging platforms – 2%
The main movers (up or down) in the last few years are search engines (+9%) and social media (+12%). This growth has been fuelled by the ubiquity of smartphones/tablets – there are further articles on How To Run A Pub for more advice on real world and online marketing to give you a head-start.
The Age, Pay and Gender Gaps
Any business always has to look to the future for its continued success so having a grasp of how different age groups and the sexes use pubs is important in keeping your business plan up to date.
Generally speaking, the older one gets, the less one visits the pub and the more one entertains (or is entertained) at home. For example, only 43% of Young, Free & Singles regularly drink on a weekly basis at home, whilst for Empty Nesters it’s 74%.
We all have different personal budgets and knowing how much certain types of people are likely to spend will help you set your price points for your food and drinks. Here is what the UK population budget for a pub visit:
Weekday Pub Visits
- Under a fiver – 11%
- £5 to £10 – 22%
- £10 to £15 – 24%
- £15 to 20 – 21%
- £20 to £30 – 13%
- Over £30 -10%
- Under a fiver – 3%
- £5 to £10 – 8%
- £10 to £15 – 17%
- £15 to 20 – 20%
- £20 to £30 – 21%
- Over £30 – 31%
As you can see, people are prepared to spend significantly more at weekends than during the week. Switched-on pub operators might use Dynamic Pricing to take advantage of this information and alter their prices accordingly. If you don’t believe this works, supermarkets are rolling out automatic dynamic pricing for fuel based on their understanding of their customers’ spending habits. The algorithm is expected to alter prices up to as many as 10 times a day and take notice of events such as bank holidays. Some might view this as price gouging, but as grandma said, “What’s sauce for the goose…” and I leave it up to you to decide on this tactic.
Like it or not there are differences in the drinking habits of men and women; for example, 44% of men visit the pub weekly against 24% of women, similarly 57% of men drink at home weekly and only 39% of women.
However, it’s not just about responsible drinking, men are generally simple beasts to deal with… beer, pies and sports does it. Women on the other hand have distinct reasons for making their pilgrimage to the pub, here are the top examples:
- Cooking lessons – 23%
- Watching films – 26%
- Business Lunch – 29%
- Murder mystery night – 31%
- After work drinks – 31%
- Comedy night – 37%
- Foodie nights – 43%
- Pub quizzes – 46%
Men and women even have different coffee drinking habits with 38% of women going to a coffee shop weekly whilst only 28% of men do the same.
Your job as publican is to try and satisfy some (or if you are really going for it all) of these things, a good place to start is with a decent coffee offering.
It’s All About The Timing
Another deciding factor is when people are most likely to visit your pub. If you know when they’re likely to come in then you can plan accordingly and who knows even improve on the inevitable quiet times most pubs experience from time to time.
These are the top six reasons why customers might come and fill your quiet nights/weeks:
- Pub quiz – 45%
- Cuisine evenings – 37%
- Comedy night – 33%
- Watch live sport – 33%
- After work drinks – 29%
- Beer festival – 27%
Clearly, if you can organise any or all of these events, then you could make a huge difference to your profit/loss account.
There are certain calendar and special events which trigger the desire to go to the pub and the top ten reasons for considering a pub visit are:
- Birthday – 83%
- Anniversary – 54%
- Bank Holiday – 43%
- New Year’s Eve – 40%
- Summer barbecue – 37%
- Mother’s Day – 35%
- Christmas Party – 32%
- Christmas Eve – 32%
- Father’s Day – 31%
- Easter weekend – 24%
Further analysis of pub visits also throws up some great marketing opportunities:
- 64% of Families head to the pub on Mother’s Day and 58% for Father’s Day – make sure you have offers for these days
- Hallowe’en (41%), Christmas Eve (40%), New Year’s Day (32%) suit Young, Free & Singles – plan events for these times
By putting all this information together, a reasonably efficient publican should be able to maximise the appeal of their pub to their local marketplace and the customer types likely to use their pub. To give your customers an extra reason there are also incentives one can offer customers, they’re known as promotional activity.
The top three most popular promotions with UK adults are all-day low prices (39%), BOGOFs (17%) and food & drink meal deals (9%). Value for money is clearly a factor here, and other research reveals that 66% of customers said all-day low prices was in their top three reasons, with 62% stating food & drink meal deals was in their top three. And… just in case you were wondering, 52% wanted a set menu as one of their principal needs.
Now we can consider what you want as a business person. Your unique business needs can’t be considered in a brief guide such as this, but I think there are three main drivers in the pub business and this is how to drive them:
Bums on seats – you need a combination of promotions, great outlet standards, good external/visible communications (chalkboards and banners) and big events
More pub visits – for this you’ll need the first three above and instead of big events, a good feel for the rhythm of your weekly activities and what suits potential customers, for instance I have never held public mid-week discos and as they are more suited to the weekends. (Of course, if someone books a mid-week party and wants a disco then one would oblige).
Increased spend per visit – a good range of food & drink products, up-selling by staff, for instance selling desserts or cocktails and effective in-house marketing by using point of sale material such as table talkers.
If you use this knowledge and have read my tips on “signposting” your offer to your customer base, you’ll be well on the way to setting up a profitable pub business.