Wednesday, 28 September 2016

51% of beer now sold in shops

For the first time ever, more beer (51%) is sold in shops than in pubs. The British Beer and Pub Association puts most of the blame on the beer duty escalator, pointing out that, despite recent cuts, duty is 54% higher than it was in 2000, and is 14 times the German rate. In 1980, 87.7% of UK beer sales were in pubs, a figure that has declined ever since.

While I don't disagree with this point, there is another reason that I haven't seen mentioned: in 1980, supermarkets didn't sell alcohol alongside the baked beans. I well recall the massive fuss when a supermarket in Southport applied for an off-sales licence; I cannot remember the year, but it was well after 1980. The licence was granted but with restrictions that seem odd today, including that it had to be in an entirely separate room with its own till, and that alcohol could not be paid for at any other till in the shop. I'm not quite sure, but I think that there might even have been a stipulation that any alcohol bought in the off licence section could not be carried unwrapped in the rest of the supermarket. As we all know, drink is now stocked in the normal aisles and paid for like everything else.

The difference between having a separate shop within a shop and the current situation is that it allows for impulse purchases; it also removes the implication that alcohol sales are something slightly shameful to be hidden away. Buying alcohol with your everyday groceries has now become completely normal. In recent years the number of convenience stores with an off-sales licence, many run by the big supermarket chains, has multiplied, resulting in a further increase in the number shops that sell alcohol. Ironically, quite a few of these are in former pubs.

All of this has encouraged a huge expansion in off-sales, a tendency that the duty escalator added to, but did not create. Cutting duty would certainly help pubs, but it couldn't significantly reverse the tendency to drink at home: the decline in pub use is due to many factors, of which duty is one, that have been covered extensively elsewhere*.

It's also worth noting that making alcohol so much easier to buy has one entirely foreseeable consequence which - oddly enough - no one seemed to foresee: that it would also make under-age purchases easier. In this way do we unwittingly create new causes for moral panic.

* My own list of suggestions for the decline is here.


  1. Surely supermarkets selling beer is a response to demand, not a way of creating it out of thin air. If supermarkets really could do that they would have discovered the magic secret of business.

    Anyway, see here for my thoughts on why the switch has happened.

    1. I was actually talking about supermarkets providing progressively more opportunities, rather than creating the demand, to buy alcohol from the position 35 years ago when off-sales were mostly available in some pubs and a few off licences. If drink had become available as easily in the 60s as it is now, I suspect the switch to home drinking would have started much earlier. Licensing laws held back the trend.

  2. When I worked in supermarkets whilst at school in the early 70s, the off licence had to have a separate counter at which you made your selection and paid. There was no need for a separate entrance.
    Supermarkets then were much smaller than they are now and there was no thought of stacking cases of beer so that they could be bought by the case. Most of the beers were bought in 4 packs of small (10oz ) cans. I think Allied were one of the first to mass produce 16 oz cans following the launch of Long Life.
    Of course there was no satellite TV then either, can anyone remember when Sky launched?

    1. November 1990, according to Google.

      I think what you've said supports my general point that supermarkets have progressively moved into the alcohol market as the tendency to drink at home has increased. I'm not arguing that one trend caused the other.

    2. I'd say the general switch from 275ml to 440ml cans happened in the first half of the 80s.

  3. Looking at the BBPA stats, there hasn't really been any volume growth in off-trade beer for 12 years. In recent years, this trend is entirely due to lower on-trade volumes, which have fallen by 40% over the same period.


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