Can retail technology save the British pub?

Nick Booth
pub 300x225 Can retail technology save the British pub?

(Getty Images)

How do you save the British pub? Relaxing the smoking ban is an option. Maybe breweries could support their landlords, instead of treating them like the squatters who stand between them and a big property deal. A less punitive tax system which encouraged social drinking and punished binge boozers might work.

None of these will happen soon. Neither the government nor the breweries seem to care about pubs dying – and we smokers will never want to lose the new exclusive social scene that we’ve created outdoors. So it behooves pub managers to save the pub, and they can do this by adopting the technology that retailers use to bamboozle their clients. If retailers can mesmerise shoppers with technology, when they are generally sober, imagine the potential for winning over drinkers!

Some early uses of technology in pubs have proved counter productive. Nothing makes me hate a pub more than discovering that the advertised ‘free wifi’ is useless. Pubs and hotels that withhold their ‘discount’ (i.e. normal price), unless you ‘Facebook Like’ them, deserve contempt too.

Here’s a couple of new uses of technology (one modern retail technology, one ancient retailed technology) that show how you can get punters back into your pub.

The Cavendish Arms in London’s Stockwell now uses smartphones and mobile apps to attract punters. Meanwhile, further south in Kingston on Thames, The Antelope is using distinctly old school analogue technology to woo the punters. But it’s no less effective for that.

At The Cavendish Arms manager Tristan Town uses LifeSynk, a technology that combines near field communications and Facebook to create a sort of automated social market.

Punter excitement is generated and maintained because at any moment drinkers can see who is in the pub, what’s happening and how much the landlord is prepared to give away. Offers of drinks on the house, free tickets to comedy nights and discounts on dining out seem to keep the regulars emotional and coming back for more.

It works at The Cavendish because, with its relatively young clientele, most regulars carry up-to-date smartphones with standard issue near field communication (NFC) hardware. Normally NFC  turns your phone into a contactless payment system but the makers of LifeSynk tweaked it to link up with and compliment Facebook. The result is a loyalty system that drinkers can tap into,which has the user friendliness of Facebook without the inherent creepiness.

The punters enrol by tapping their smartphone against one of the NFC swipe points in the pub. After that, everything they do is recorded on a timeline. It’s like being in a regular Facebook group, only everything relates to what you are doing in the pub, how much you’re drinking and how many offers the landlord wants to give you on the house. By tapping into the LifeSynk system, every drink you consume gets you credits, you can earn free drinks and prizes. “Congratulations! You’ve just won a new liver!” You can win a sort of commission on the number of people you’ve encouraged into the pub.

“Right now it’s difficult to control what’s being said about the pub over social media and our own posts have an audience limited by likes and check-ins,” says Town. The LifeSynk technology means 250 people see the offer with each tap. “That’s a pretty useful marketing tool for us,” he says.

Meanwhile, The Antelope in Kingston is still trying to recover from two terrible stigmas. First Penelope Keith and The Good Life gave the district (the pub is in the Surbiton end of Kingston) a terrible reputation. If that wasn’t bad enough, The Antelope was once haunted by Bubble, the mockney Chelsea fan from the first series of Big Brother.

Manager Jerry Carroll is fighting to win the punters back with his own version of social technology. He’s hired sound system maestro Carl Flanagan to create Vinyl Nights at the pub on Fridays. This idea is a lot simpler and low tech: bring your own records to the pub.

That may not sound like a technological revolution but it’s proved massively successful. Few people have the technology to pay their records any more. Judging by the reaction on the night I visited, there’s a lost generation of music fans, whose greatest moments have been imprisoned in storage by the new order of digital media.

The sight of emotional drinkers poring over sleeve notes, comparing album covers and remembering lyrics shows how much we’ve lost in the move from analogue to digital. MP3s don’t come with beautiful album covers or sleeve notes. You can’t hold an MP3 file, lovingly wipe the dust from its grooves or admire the art work on its cover. Don’t get me started on CDs – they’re about as durable as those ghastly collapsable plastic cases they come in.

Just by giving punters the chance to play their records again, manager Jerry Carroll has probably done more to build the reputation of his pub than Facebook would have done. Sometimes the low tech option is far more effective. Web conferencing is OK for bland online meetings but if you rally want to grab anyone’s attention, and lure people out of hiding, try walking into an office at lunchtime with a bag of chips.

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  • Lifesynk

    The most resounding point to make here is that every person who is present at a location could be communicating to their friends at home in the same way they do when browsing Facebook online – they just need to be given the tools.

  • Joey McFarland

    Another cool way to make a pub more interactive is to have pour-you-own-beer stations. Super cool! A British-inspired Pub in the US is doing just that: It would be awesome to see this more widespread!

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