Sales fall brings pub price war to a head

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PUBLICANS are being forced to cut the price of beer in response to falling demand and a public perception that an evening in the pub is becoming an expensive night out, writes Martin Whitfield.

Special offers have reduced the price of a pint to as low as 79p in London - cheaper than the regular price in low-cost regions like the North-west - as landlords have sought to attract customers.

The cuts are designed, in part, to increase business in the quiet months of January and February, but competition from home drinking and bulk personal imports from France is likely to ensure low prices throughout the year.

Overall, beer sales have fallen by about 2 per cent in each of the past four to five years, at the same time as substantial price rises have been imposed. Pub sales of beer are believed to have declined at a much faster pace.

Richard Fuller, a director of Fullers, which owns about 200 pubs mainly in south-west London, denied that a 20p reduction in the price of two of the company's beers was in response to cuts from other pub chains.

'We are trying to get back those people who have stopped going into pubs. In one of our pubs, a big party of 25 of the best regulars went on a day trip to France for their Christmas beer. That was the last the landlady saw of them for a fortnight,' he said.

The biggest cost reductions have been made in a new year promotion by the J D Wetherspoon chain, which has 77 outlets, 75 within the M25. Keith Lunn, retail director, said that the lowest- priced bitter was now 79p, compared with between 99p and pounds 1.10p. Draught Guinness and special 'guest' beers had been reduced by more than 30p a pint.

Local competition has meant other pubs have had to follow suit as customers face a price differential of as much as 70p for Guinness or premium lagers for the duration of the two-month long promotion.

Big brewers have assisted their landlords by reducing the cost of beer or by financing special 'two for one' prices for a bar meal.

Stephen Cox, campaigns manager for the Campaign for Real Ale, said: 'The perception of the pub as a good night out is fading. For a few pounds more people can go out and have a meal and a drink.'

(Photograph omitted)