Mostly, the Fig. 4 trend echoes Fig. 2: a city centre location means you’re paying more for drink relative to food. Pubs in the bottom left corner are optimised to be food-led whereas the ones in the top-right are, in industry jargon, wet-led. None of that’s a big surprise.
More interesting are the outliers, the pubs furthest away from the diagonal. These are places taking a margin hit on the curry relative to the burger, or vice versa. Outliers are, in effect, an indicator of targeted predation.
One noticeable feature of the data is that curries tend to be priced more aggressively around Birmingham, where more than a quarter of the population identifies as Asian or Asian British. Other outliers demand a more granular type of research. Take for example The Edwin Waugh in Heywood, Greater Manchester, which is middle of the pack nationally for burger value and among the very cheapest for a curry. It’s probably not coincidental that Tripadvisor finds four Indian restaurants within ten minutes of The Heywood, and no burger joints.
Most likely, Wetherspoon’s many fans will dismiss this kind of analysis as poncy, ill-informed, overblown nonsense. No one in their right mind orders a tikka masala except on Thursdays, they’ll point out, because Thursday night is Curry Club. And no one orders one brownie at £3.85 because two brownies cost £5.
Except that’s not quite true, because two brownies might also cost £6, or £7, or whatever a multiple of brownies would routinely cost. Turns out the price architecture for promotions is even more complicated than the regular menu.
The picture emerging here is of obsessive menu engineering and predatory cynicism. Many pub and restaurant chains do this kind of thing a bit, but none does it with the ruthlessness of Wetherspoon, whose grand, cavernous spaces fill up each day thanks in large part to a menu that reads like several hundred carefully targeted microaggressions against the immediate community.
And it works. Centrally managed pub chains account for close to half the UK market by revenue, Berenberg estimates. It’s assumed that, as the weak independents fall victim to slower consumer spending, the chains will keep gaining power.
Is this a problem? Chances are we’ll never know. The CMA, the Competition Commission’s successor, has been reticent to make waves for the pub trade, the grocery trade, the junk food trade and pretty much any other trade. The CMA’s acquiescence makes it unlikely that we’ll ever have an enquiry on whether hospitality chains ought to adopt the same kind of flat pricing its predecessor pushed on supermarkets. That’s a pity, because the arguments look equally valid. Because it’s far from obvious how consumers benefit from Wetherspoon always being the cheapest place within ten minutes of where they’re stood.
My emphasis. When even the FT routinely knocks a regulator’s effectiveness, you have to wonder what’s going on.