Surge Pricing on Pints of Beer Splits Pub Operators in the UK

“Unhappy hour”: Pints that cost more on weekends and for World Cup games might not fly, after all.

(Bloomberg) — The price of your next pint may go up, depending on where—and when—you drink.

The UK’s biggest pub operator, Stonegate Group has introduced “dynamic pricing” to pints and other drinks at 800 of its 4,500 venues during busy times, including weekends. At such company’s venues as Slug & Lettuce and Be At One, the price would go up when the place is packed; it might drop below the standard price at less crowded times to entice customers. 

This doesn’t mean it will get more expensive to drink on Saturdays everywhere. Many operators, including the ubiquitous pub chain J D Wetherspoon, say they won’t be shifting prices up and down. A representative for the company, which has nearly 900 locations across the UK and Ireland, says it has no plans to implement dynamic pricing. Greene King, which operates 2,700 pubs, hotels and restaurants in the UK, also confirmed that it doesn’t intend to use surge pricing in the near or distant future. 

The concept mirrors the practice of airlines and hotel companies that increase prices for seats and rooms at busy times, in line with demand. Users who hire Uber to ride home from pubs late on Friday evenings will already be very familiar with surge pricing. 

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Heath Ball, owner of the award-winning the Red Lion and Sun in North London, adamantly opposes surge pricing. His customers are, he says, very sensitive to price hikes because of the UK’s stubbornly high inflation rate. Ball says that if he must raise prices, he will increase them across the board rather than on targeted days and times.

Flex pricing won’t do pubs any favors, he insists. “Everyone hates being charged more for things like flights on school holiday time or concerts,” he says. “I don’t want going to the pub to feel like an event, I want it to be something people do with their mates all the time.” 

Unhappy Hour

Ball is currently in Bristol to attend the MA Leaders Club conference, an event focused on people in the pub trade. There, Stonegate’s surge pricing initiative has dominated conversation. The move has been dubbed “unhappy hour” by operators at the conference, who agree that it won’t bring the publicity they want when customers’ budgets are already squeezed. 

The price hikes, first reported by the Telegraph, will result in the cost of pints increasing by 20 pence (25¢), for example, on weekends at Stonegate Central London venues. Although that’s not a large amount, it adds up, especially amid rising beer prices. The average cost of a pint of lager in a UK pub is now £4.58, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. In 2019, a pint cost £3.70. Stories of £8 pints regularly incite grumbling on social media. 

Surge pricing is not new to Stonegate. Its pubs have hiked the price of pours by much as £1 during major events such as the FIFA World Cup in 2022. A spokesperson for Stonegate said in a release that “on occasions pricing may marginally increase in selective pubs and bars due to the increased cost demands on the business with additional staffing or licensing requirements such as additional door team members.” The spokesperson also flagged such cost-saving promotions as happy hours and 2-for-1 cocktails. 

The UK’S pub industry has struggled in recent years. The number of pubs around the country has dropped by a quarter since 2000, according to data from the British Beer and Pub Association. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, rising costs for energy and raw materials such as cooking oils have hurt, along with problems in hiring and retaining staff. “Gone are the days where everyone thinks publicans are rolling in cash. People just aren’t going out as much anymore,” says Ball. 

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