Chance for retail as pubs fail customersI can’t be the only one utterly bemused by the furore that’s erupted in the on-trade this week after a guidebook excluded hundreds of pubs because they failed to meet its standards. In an episode of unfathomable logic, the Good Pub Guide (the clue’s in the name) has found itself in the dock, accused of somehow being disingenuous by omitting certain venues in case consumers realised some pubs are, in fact, pretty dire.

It’s absurd to criticise the guide’s authors for putting the needs of its readers – and its own credibility – first. Are the detractors really saying it’s OK for an independent voice to advise people to spend their money in places that have been criticised for being dirty, noisy and generally unappealing? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing better than a great pub experience. It’s part of our culture, of which we should be justifiably proud. The trouble is, too many pubs aren’t particularly proud themselves. There will be factions of the on-trade who will attack the guide for exposing this so publicly – and no doubt be hoping blame for failing publicans rests at the off-trade’s door.

It’s no wonder some suppliers pull their products out of certain places because they know the customer experience will have a detrimental effect on their brand. So while the off-trade is accused of destroying products through price, some on-trade outlets are cheapening products through poor service – as anyone who’s had a glass stained with lipstick will testify. It’s hardly the shop window brand owners would want.

Of course, there are operators who focus on quality and “theatre”, which was the word used by one pub company executive when he described its latest innovation to me recently.

The group is trialling a machine that sits on the bar and enables staff to carbonate any type of wine – essentially a Sodastream for adults. The premise is that punters love anything fizzy and don’t really care about how it came to sparkle in the first place. I’m a big believer in the customer always being right, but this smacks of regression rather than evolution to me – Dom Pérignon must be turning in his grave.

Décor and overall experience is one thing, but another gripe raised by the guide was the disappointing range of products offered by pubs. Perhaps this will change if the government is forced into taking action over the beer tie which most licensees are beholden to.

The reality is that beer lovers are now much better served by the take-home market, with retailers expanding their ranges and diversifying into a portion of the sector which is really flourishing.

In our last issue, we reported on an online retailer delivering niche ciders, similar to a wine club. There are lots of enthusiastic beer retailers offering a similar point of difference. All too often the off-trade’s efforts to push consumers’ boundaries in these areas, historically the on-trade’s core domains, are overlooked.

This week, the Society of Independent Brewers dropped the handpump from its logo. Perhaps, as the pub industry digests the Good Pub Guide’s comments, we are now going to see greater recognition for the off-trade’s endeavours.