The idea for The BarCode came about in 2017, whilst living in London and lamenting the number of pubs shutting down. The big chains were transforming city centres and high streets into standardised copies. Even as craft brewers and distillers were flying, with fantastic breweries moving into the mainstream. The independent food and drink movement was clearly having its moment, yet independents were struggling. This was despite 53% of UK adults stating their preference to support independents over chains. 2019, showed some signs of the decline levelling off but now we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic. The struggle is more real now than ever.
Confusion, contradiction & statistics!
Researching into the stats (this was pre-pandemic) was enlightening and ‘sobering’. Over the past decade, the UK has lost almost a quarter (23%) of its pubs, the majority of them independent. However, the number of craft brewers rose by 68% between 2013 and 2018. And the craft distillers have grown from just 63 in 2012 to 205 in 2018 (325%). But the managed pubs and big chains were getting bigger and creating an ever tougher, overcrowded environment. Their revenue had grown by over 28% in just three years (2015 – 2018). While independents saw a revenue decline of 2.5% (not accounting for inflation), with the number of tenanted pubs down by 23.3% and freehold pubs down by 2%, in the same period.
That’s not to say there aren’t independents that thrived by embracing the evolving market but clearly there were more who couldn’t. From lack of capital to invest in their property or broaden their food and drink offering, to known issues around business rates, beer duties and the onerous terms of pub ties—it’s challenging to say the least.
Why do so many independents struggle?
The large chains also capitalised on mobile marketing with apps to leverage regulars and promotions to grow a new customer base. With deep pockets and broad geographical coverage they were able to afford the significant investment and attract national audiences. For independents, options are limited. The most rudimentary proprietary app costs about £10,000 upwards or there are white label monthly subscriptions, but the chances of a return on investment is slim. Users are unlikely to download a standalone pub app among the multitude of others vying for space on their phones. And users don’t download apps for venues they are unaware of in the first place. The next option is listing on aggregators where independents are still unable to break through the overcrowded listings and engage with audiences.
Social media seemingly provides a free-for-all platform. However, chains have the advantage of considerable marketing budgets to advertise and attract more followers. With changing algorithms, escalating volume of content and virality; significant engagement from followers is difficult to measure and demanding on a landlord’s time. Even Instagram, the most engaged with platform, averages 4% (likes, shares, comments, etc.) from existing followers. Not surprising, when the average user follows 150 profiles and measurable stats on how many translate into paying customers isn’t even available.
Multi site operators can afford to have full time social media teams. But independents are managing these inhouse, over and above running their businesses.
Why The BarCode, why now?
We wanted to bridge this divide and level the playing field for the independents by creating an app to grow their customer base and address their struggles with user engagement and marketing budgets.
The BarCode provides them with the direct marketing tools of their own app. An app where they can list their venues, menus, events, offers, etc. but with a two way ‘communication’ street between venue and user. Venues get to upload their own content and engage directly via push notifications to a targeted user base they wish to reach. No more hoping that users find them. Now they find and communicate directly with their users. It’s also simple to use to minimise the demands on already hard-pressed landlords. For those who don’t have the time to run their own posts, The BarCode is happy to do it for them. We target and mobilise a broad user base already interested in exploring the independent scene and enrich their experience with extensive filters and search options—from craft beer brands, vegan favourites and events including anything from live music to sport.
The last two years have been a steep but rewarding learning curve. With a growing list of great indie venues across London, Birmingham and Manchester, The BarCode has continued to develop more features along the way and officially launched in early March 2020. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks COVID-19 changed the world as we know it. It has been incredibly sad to see many of our partner venues take such a hit during this time. However, we feel more determined than ever to be there to support the independent scene during and after this nightmare has passed.