A stock market ticker rolls across an LED screen in a blur, as I wince my way through yet another shot of white sambuca.
It’s New Year’s Eve 2010 and I’m at the Chequers on Preston Street in Brighton. I am drinking the bar dry. It’s the last night of the pub under the current owners, who know someone who knows someone I vaguely know from student halls. They want to get rid of every keg, bottle and can located on the premises in as short an amount of time as possible.
To do this, they’ve turned the bar into their very own cognac NASDAQ; their Fernet-Branca FTSE. Popular drinks – continental lager, Malbec, gin and tonic with a little jetton of cucumber in – go up in price as more people order them. The prices of the drinks no one is buying – crème de menthe, advocaat, Fosters – go way, way down, to the point where they’re so cheap you really ought to be getting a round of them in, even if they taste like window cleaner.
It’s a dangerous game, and by about 10pm, the urinal trough in the men’s toilet is filled with a selection of curiously coloured vomit. I drink far too much and have to go home not long after Auld Lang Syne. I feel atrocious for a couple of days.
That was my first experience of dynamic pricing. And my latest experience of it, just last week, has made me feel just as nauseous.
A friend told me about a pub near Piccadilly Circus, The Coach House, that had put up a sign on the bar. “Polite notice,” it says with all the boozy conviviality of a public library. “Dynamic pricing is currently live in this venue during this peak trading session.” Essentially, what this means is that during busy times, drinks prices are put up. The exact time periods are unclear, but a bartender tells me that any increase generally coincides with events, either at the theatres down the road or in the basement, which turns into a comedy club on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
The reasons, the sign lays out, are threefold. Firstly, dynamic pricing is put in place to make sure they have enough staff both behind the bar and on the door. Secondly, to cover “extra cleaning routines and use of polycarbonate glasses”. And lastly, a rather vague “satisfying and complying with licensing requirements”. On the sign, four people lean animatedly across a bar, smiling and cheering, presumably because dynamic pricing isn’t currently in place.
Call me cynical, but might there be a fourth reason? That, under the murky cover of a national cost-of-living crisis, pubs have simply chosen to take the absolute piss?
Price fluctuations in bars and pubs are nothing new, although they usually go the other way. Happy hours have long been a fixture of the nightlife scene, with publicans looking to get punters through the door at off-peak times with the promise of £3 pints or two-for-one cocktails. But price increases have been applied, too, for big events where lots of customers are expected to come in.
As far back as that halcyon summer of 2018, there was uproar when the chain Stonegate announced they were hiking up their prices across their various pubs, including mums’ favourite Yates and the Antipodean abyss Walkabout, during England games at that summer’s World Cup, often by as much as 50p a pint. The same company jacked up the cost of a pint by a whole pound during last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that The Coach House is also part of the Stonegate group. They’ve rolled out dynamic pricing across a seemingly arbitrary selection of their 4,800 pubs, including, in equally busy Islington, The Steam Passage (part of their “Great UK Pubs” franchise) but, confusingly, not the Whittington Stone in also busy Archway. But while event pricing has been, by definition, an occasional occurrence at some of their pubs for a while, the ambiguous terms of dynamic pricing is a recent phenomenon.
It’s a move that risks driving people away from pubs at a time when the hospitality industry desperately needs people through the door. As Matthew Rogers at the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) tells me over email: “In the last 12 months, there have been 154 permanent closures [where a pub has been converted or demolished] and 1,059 long-term closures [where the pub isn’t trading but the building is still technically a pub]”, with a rate of 21 pubs shutting down per week in the last six months of 2022.
Drinks prices have been increasing naturally over the past few years anyway, thanks to the one-two punch of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. So to artificially inflate prices on top of the spiralling costs of booze seems destined to alienate regular customers, and ultimately add to those damning closure stats.
I went to The Coach House after work to try and find out a bit more about the practice. Nestled to the southwest of Leicester Square, it’s an impressive four-storey building, from the gold letters engraved up high in Portland stone alluding to the pub’s original name (Piccadilly’s No 7 Piano Bar) to the giant Champions League and NFL flags proudly flying outside. Inside, there’s a bit more about it than your average Zone 1 boozer. There’s carpet; there are booths; there’s a basement area which, when not occupied by comedians, acts more like a sports bar than a pub in the heart of the West End.
But the prices are pure modern central London. I paid £7.05 for a pint of Peroni, which, even though the pub wasn’t that busy, left me wondering if dynamic pricing was currently in operation. One of the two bartenders on duty tells me that, in actual fact, Peroni goes up to around £7.60 at peak times and, unsurprisingly, most customers aren’t too pleased with the new policy. I clocked a suited man at the table nearest to the bar and, gesturing towards the sign in the corner, asked him what he thought about it. “I didn’t even notice it to be honest,” he told me. “I’m just so used to paying through the nose for drinks that nothing surprises me anymore.”
I sat down towards the front of the pub, near to a small handful of lightly pickled post-work punters and next to a table set up with a selection of coloured dog food pellets and other canine paraphernalia, part of The Coach House’s “Sir Woofchester” dog food menu. I nursed my pint – at that price, you want to really savour it – and wondered if Sir Woofchester was ever subject to the follies of dynamic pricing.
When I got back home that evening, I contacted Stonegate. After some back and forth over email, they finally sent me a short statement that did little to satisfy my curiosity and failed to answer any of my questions. For example: why and when was the policy introduced? And across how many sites is it in operation?
“Across the hospitality and retail sectors,” the anonymous spokesperson told me, “at peak trading times, and when events and celebrations take place, additional costs are incurred and sometimes prices are adjusted as a result. We also regularly offer a wide range of promotions and deals throughout the week to make sure that we offer great value for money for our guests.”
Some of Stonegate’s establishments do undoubtedly give that good value for money. Across the country, they’re in charge of Craft Union pubs, which are often community hubs serving cut-price booze and showing televised sport in largely working-class areas. But I can’t shake the feeling that the move is designed to increase profits, rather than being anything to do with a need to put more staff or plastic glasses on. Certainly, at 6.30pm on a Wednesday evening, there weren’t any more people behind the bar in The Coach House than you would usually expect in a pub during cinq à sept trading hours. And anyway, Stonegate had revenue of £1.6 billion in 2022.
After that non-reply, I reached out to a few other pub companies in an attempt to see if the practice is going to become the future of drinking culture. Wetherspoons confirmed to me that they don’t currently deploy dynamic pricing at any of their venues, but didn’t wish to comment further. Greene King – who actually offer, via their app, 10 per cent off drinks during sporting events – never responded to my request for comment, although as far as I can tell, they don’t offer dynamic pricing either.
Lower down the chain, Antic Pubs, who own a number of London boozers including Brixton’s Effra Social and the White Hart in Stoke Newington, allayed my fears somewhat. Founder Anthony Thomas told me that he “wasn’t sure that such a pricing model would work” for their style of public house operation. “We strive to offer our best price, to all of our customers, all of the time.”
We’re used to dynamic pricing in many other walks of life, from sneaky Uber surcharges during rush hour and big-gig tickets to train and plane fares only being reasonable if you book about five years in advance. But the public house is a sacred space to most Brits, with a rigid, if largely undefined, set of rules and rituals.
You can see it in the tradition of buying rounds, the pound coins on the side of the pool table, the ripped-open packets of shared crisps in the middle of tables. You can see it in the condemnation of the single-file queuers, a practice born seemingly out of the pandemic which has recently whipped the internet up into a frenzy. You can see it in the recent outcry over a Leaning Tower-style pub being demolished without council consent in Staffordshire.
Charging more for drinks at peak times goes against everything a pub should be about. They are by the people and for the people, a place for the local community to meet and make merry in. You’re not supposed to be contributing to eye-watering profits and buying glasses of wine the cost of a hardback novel.
These things also only ever go one way. The concept of dynamic pricing would be much more palatable if, on a Monday afternoon when the pub is virtually empty, they lowered the cost of booze.
After leaving The Coach House on Wednesday, I walked from Leicester Square to Russell Square as the sun went down, the drizzle casting a pallid sheen over the scores of backpacked European schoolchildren, pickpockets and workers aimlessly milling about in the centre of town. I ended up in the Friend At Hand, a nondescript Greene King pub that was an alleged old favourite of Charles Dickens, for one last drink. A pint of Madri there set me back £6.40.
“It’s two for one, do you want a second?” the barmaid asked me as I went to pay. Happy hour, finally.