Time ladies, please

After years of neglect, women are finally being included in design ideas for pubs. Far from threatening a male preserve, Matthew Valentine discovers that this enlightened approach could benefit everyone

It may have taken a long time, but the companies which own and run Britain’s pubs and bars are now wide awake to the fact that women make up a sizeable proportion of their customers. Design is being used as a major tool to make the current generation of pubs appeal as much to women as to men.

But is it working? The latest figures from research group Mintel suggest that visiting pubs is still predominantly a male activity, especially at lunchtimes and on weekday evenings. Daytime pub visiting especially “is still very much a male-dominated pastime”, says the report on pub-visiting trends.

Women are apparently far more loyal to their favourite venues than men. The report says women are most likely to visit only one pub in a typical month, while men are more promiscuous customers.

Most worrying for the design industry are the reasons consumers give for their choice of pub. Just five per cent say style, theme or decor are involved in their decision. Around one in ten base their choice of venue on whether they can “normally get a seat” and almost a quarter base it on walking distance. Good quality food, cited by nearly a third, is another big attraction. Women drinkers seem to agree with what the chains are doing, echoing the research findings. “I don’t like to stand when I drink. I sway,” says one, in support of comfortable seating.

Fortunately, that crucial yet intangible quality, atmosphere, is also a major factor – quoted by 38 per cent of those questioned as affecting their decision. This is the area where designers can make a difference, as the more progressive pub owners are aware.

A number of factors are responsible for this sudden enlightenment in the murky world of the pub landlord. As well as obvious social changes over the last 40 years, which have left women earning and spending more than before, there have been changes to the traditional owner of pubs – the breweries.

Breweries exist to make and sell beer, and pubs are the traditional outlet for their wares. As most beer is drunk by men, it was for men that pubs were designed. But legislation has limited the number of pubs which breweries can own, leaving the breweries attempting to maximise sales from a reduced number of premises, and enabling chain operators not tied to a particular brewery to snap up surplus pubs. There has also been a rise in the number of bars converted from buildings originally made for other purposes, like banks, sold on by their original owners.

These have been entrepreneurial young companies keen to establish points of difference by providing an alternative to the traditional British boozer. And, despite moans about Irish theme pubs and lookalike chains, drinkers probably have more choice than ever before.

Designers seem to have clear ideas about what women drinkers want, and the general perception is that women are far more choosy than men about where they drink.

The first issues that are usually raised when pubs, women and design are mentioned in the same breath are “big windows” and “clean toilets”. Reasons for the latter are hopefully self-explanatory, and the former make for lighter pubs with a more spacious feel and enable customers to see who is inside before entering – avoiding the risk of walking into a dark room full of drunken bricklayers.

But are these ideas really aimed just at women? Surely most drinkers, given the choice, would rather have natural light and hygienic latrines, regardless of their sex.

“I’m trying very hard not to be sexist about men,” admits Callum Lumsden of Lumsden Design Partnership on the issue of women-friendly pubs. But style, he says, is critical to attract more women into your pub.

The consultancy designed Olio for Regal Hotels’ Green Man in Old Harlow. The client was keen to increase use of the bar by women. “It has increased sales of food and drink quite dramatically within the hotel,” says Lumsden.

“A lot of it is about layout. We had to get away from the four chairs around a table mentality,” he says. Women want more comfortable chairs, a better selection of wine and coffee, and a more welcoming atmosphere, he says.

The high-profile Slug and Lettuce chain was originally rebranded four years ago, with the aim of attracting more women by moving away from traditional pub values. Across the pub industry around 70 per cent of customers are still male. The chain was hoping to change its mix to a 50/50 split between men and women. A spokeswoman says this has been achieved across the chain, with some branches achieving a 60 per cent female profile.

Virginia Armstrong of design group Agenda, which has worked on Slug and Lettuce outlets, says research highlighted a number of traditional pub values which deterred women. Hence the removal of games machines, which were seen as maintaining traditionally “male” in that they were loud and anti-social. “Women go to pubs to talk,” she says. The chain has also sourced tables with smooth undersides to avoid snagged clothing and has recruited staff “particularly adept at handling women”.

Even the word “pub”, which conjures images of warm beer and cloth caps, does not appear anywhere on the Slug and Lettuce facia, and internally the outlets are known as bars.

Last month, The Design Solution finished work on the 14th branch of Pitcher & Piano, in London’s Bishopsgate. Over 1m was spent on the shell of the building to give it the necessary light and airy characteristics.

And in June, The Fine Line will be launched, a new chain from brewing group Fullers, created by Design House. Consultancy chairman Tim May says, “A female-friendly bar is an oxymoron… the idea that men can make pubs welcoming to women is arrogant and patronising.” He argues that pubs and bars are traditionally a male preserve and owners need to start from scratch to have an effect.

So it seems that men, who might be feeling put out at the lack of attention being paid to what they want in pubs, are not being ignored. “Everybody expects basic standards of cleanliness now,” says Slug and Lettuce’s spokeswoman, refelecting most pub operators’ feeling that very few men still hanker after the old-fashioned, smelly, dirty boozers of yesteryear.

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