Hurry up, Harry, we're going down the grocers

As pubs give way to supermarkets, is it a case of adapt or call time, asks James Thompson
  • @Thompj

The local pub has long been the place where people drink, eat, watch sport, meet their long-term (or immediate) partners and even get into bar-room brawls.

But these days the British are almost as likely to bump into neighbours at the grocery store as they are at their local.

This is because Tesco is understood to have converted up to 160 former boozers into supermarkets, amid an alarmingly fast rate of pub closures during the economic downturn.

Tesco accounted for 119 of the 199 pubs converted over the three years to December, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra).

However, as this data excludes the North East and only provides a snapshot of the last decade, the true figure on conversions is likely to be much higher.

And Tesco is not alone, as the likes of Sainsbury's, Aldi, Co-op and Costcutter have also turned failed pubs into food stores. They are attracted to sites that often have car parks and are located at the heart of communities.

This land grab has got the pub industry hot under the collar at a time when 26 locals a week are closing, equal to 1,352 a year, according to Camra.

Mike Benner, Camra's chief executive, said: "Weak and misguided planning laws and the predatory acquisition of valued pub sites by large supermarket chains, coupled with the willingness of pub owners to cash in and sell for development, are some of the biggest threats to the future of Britain's social fabric.

"For years, large supermarket chains have shown a disregard for the well-being of local communities, gutting much-loved former pubs in areas already well served by supermarket stores."

He added: "Pubs are being targeted for development by supermarket chains due to gaps in planning controls, allowing supermarkets to ride roughshod over the wishes of the local community."

This, though, is an argument that irks the big supermarkets.

The grocers argue that they are not responsible for the growing reluctance of customers to pay £4 a pint or more at their local boozer – pricing levels that the beer industry has repeatedly blamed on the Government's punitive alcohol taxes – as the British increasingly opt to entertain at home.

The supermarkets also typically take closed or empty former pubs, which can become a magnet for drug addicts, criminals or fly-tippers.

Scott Annan, a retail consultant at Blue Ananta, said: "In my experience, supermarkets are not buying thriving pubs – such as The George IV in Chiswick [west London ]. They are taking redundant pubs that have ceased to be viable.

"Consumers' demand for shopping at convenience stores is growing enormously and at a much faster rate than other areas of the grocery sector," he added.

"We all need to eat and drink but do not want or need to go to a good or a bad pub. If a supermarket can take these redundant properties at the heart of local communities and turn them into something that people want, then that has to be a good thing."

The supermarkets also point to the jobs they create in local communities by acquiring former pubs.

A Tesco spokesman said: "By helping to find a use for a small proportion of those buildings [ex-pubs], we are part of the solution for communities – not the problem."

Furthermore, the supermarkets argue, the cash machines they provide also help to pump money into other local shops at a time when many banks are withdrawing from the high street.

Like those shops, pubs are having to reinvent themselves – by sprucing up their interiors, for example, or serving coffee and food – in order to remain relevant.

For those that don't, The Good Pub Guide 2014 warned this week that between 2,500 and 4,000 pubs could close over the next 12 months, adding that for some it is "high time they closed their doors".

Alisdair Aird, the Guide's co-editor, said: "Pubs have got to diversify if they want to succeed – they can't just open for lunch and open again in the evening any more."