How Much? Why we don’t ask for the price

Boak and Bailey set a November blog challenge with the theme of ‘What’s something about beer or pubs that’s always puzzled you?’ ( that inspired me to actually start updating my blog!

In no other commercial transaction, outside of ordering a pint, is the price a surprise after you’ve ordered something.

Can you imagine going into the supermarket and then finding out how much your shopping is after it’s bagged and you’re committed to purchasing whatever you have? Can you imagine doing online shopping and finding out the cost when you look at your bank statement? Walking out a bank and complaining to your mates you only found out your mortgage interest rate was 20% after you’d signed the paperwork? Of course not, prices are clearly labelled, you can figure out how much you’re spending as you’re going along. But this is very much the not situation in most British pubs.

Most pubs do not have any prices on pump clips, they don’t have drinks menus with prices on and they don’t have anything up on the walls to tell you what the price of their products are. This has improved somewhat over the past few years with some bars featuring large blackboards with all their beers and price lists but in more traditional pubs it’s nowhere to be found. Funnily enough it is chain bars that seem to be ahead on this. Weatherspoons for all it’s faults, does have clear prices advertised at the bar and in the menus. Brewdog has it’s prices clearly emblazoned on a lightboard.

I went to a work Christmas party last year (remember parties, where people congregated together in large numbers? Seems utterly bizarre now!) and the beer selection was as you’d imagine it would be at such an event; half a dozen macro lagers, a tiny selection of cans and Guinness Extra Cold. They had Beavertown Neck Oil and I decided that could see me through the night. For a moment I thought about querying the price but it was loud and it might take several attempts to get that information from the server and there was a busy queue behind me, and god forbid my colleagues be mildly irked by me taking more time at the bar asking for a price so I just pointed at the fridge and shouted ‘A CAN OF NECK OIL PLEASE!’

I handed over a ten pound note and was handed only change in return, I pointed out the few coins in my hand to the beer server and informed him that I had in fact handed over a ten pound note, ready for the server to apologise and hand over a five pound note. He informed me my change was correct and the price was £7.20 for a can of Neck Oil. I slunk away with my can. I spent the rest of the evening drinking Guinness at it’s more relatively reasonable price of £4.10 a pint.

               What an absolutely bizarre commercial interaction. The bar doesn’t advertise the price, I don’t ask for the price because its against social norms to do so, the beer server doesn’t even then inform me of the price until after I have the change and beer in my hand. I leave with the can, even though it was unopened and I could easily have asked for refund and got a different drink! We’ve all been there, left with less change than we thought we’d get, or asked to hand over more money when we though the note we handed over was sufficient. I’ve even had a pint handed to me, poured and the server say to me “That’s £5.20, unfortunately!’ Like he’d tricked me somehow.

               Why does this utterly bizarre system persist, because of Britishness! We’re uncomfortable talking about money as a nation anyway. We’re a country where its considered rude to ask someone what their job is! This is considered an ice breaker in most countries, not a taboo subject. So yes, it seems garish in the bastion of Britishness that is the pub to just tell people the prices for your beer.

               Mainly I think the culprit is the British urge to ‘not make a fuss’. Ask the server how much the beer is? Absolutely not, that’s making a fuss  so we just order the beer and quietly hope it’s not ridiculously overpriced. If it is overpriced do we refuse to pay and ask for something else? No that’d be making a fuss., we smile and head back to table and complain to my friends in a hushed tone “£7.20 for a can of neck oil!”. If we’re particularly annoyed we might deploy the ultimate British expression of disgust, an audible tut!

2 thoughts on “How Much? Why we don’t ask for the price

  1. Here here! Here in New England we have the same issue, almost to the very T. Pubs not advertising, bills coming that sock you in the jaw. I tweeted recently that for me at least the bloom is off the rose. Friend and I went into our local pub more than a while back when such things were indeed normal. Tasted through several pints and got handed a bar tab of over $90. The delicious and exciting lineups of amazing craft beers can’t really make up for the ridiculous prices. Now quarantine has shown us that comparing prices buying from liquor stores and drinking at home has saved us so much money we can’t really ignore it.


  2. I got a round in once at an unfamiliar bar – without much choice on draught, so a couple of us were on bottles – and was absolutely convinced I’d been overcharged, possibly by a tenner (the price I’d paid seemed ludicrous). It put a bit of a dent in the evening, as we spent the next quarter of an hour talking about it. Eventually I went back to the bar and – with some difficulty – got the bartender to talk me through what I’d been charged; it turned out they had got it right the first time, and it was a combination of slightly-silly pricing on the draught and absolute pisstakes on the bottles. It is ridiculous that we have to go through this kind of rigmarole.

    The other offender that comes to mind is Sam Smith’s. These days you wouldn’t go to a Sam’s pub for a cheap drink anyway, but even when the draught beers were going cheap they were making it back on bottles. Last time I was in the Lyceum (central London, admittedly) I spotted a bottle of Stingo in the fridge and decided on the spur of the moment that I’d have that. I swear the bartender opened the fridge, took the bottle out and opened it in a single movement; she’d certainly got the cap off before I managed to ask her how much it was. It was £12.60. Lovely beer, but never again!


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