Wetherspoons has suffered a pandemic hangover as cautious older drinkers stay away from its pubs.
The pub chain said sales in the 15 weeks to 7 November were 8.9% lower than pre-pandemic levels in 2019 with draught products that tend to be favoured by older clientele under pressure – traditional ales dropping by 30% and stout by 20%.
By contrast, drinks that tend to be popular with younger customers saw strong growth – with cocktails up 45% and vodka and rum rising by 17% and 26% respectively.
Chairman Tim Martin said some customers were being “understandably cautious” but that booster vaccinations and better weather in the spring should have a positive impact in coming months.
Shares dropped by more than 4% in morning trading.
The group said bar sales were down by 9.6% while the impact of people working from home appeared to have affected food revenues, with breakfast demand dropping by 22%.
Wetherspoons also acknowledged that it had experienced supply chain disruption “from time to time” but said the problems had eased in recent weeks.
On recruitment – another challenge across the economy – the group said it had seen “isolated difficulties” in some areas during the “pingdemic” and in popular UK “staycation” hotspots but that there had generally been a “reasonable level of job applications” as it grew its workforce after the reopening of pubs in the spring.
Wetherspoons said trade had recovered unexpectedly well in some larger towns and cities such as Newcastle and Liverpool but sales were still 17% below pre-pandemic levels in central London.
Chairman Tim Martin said that with a no music policy across its pubs – except those trading under the Lloyds brand – a “material proportion” of trade comes from older customers “some of whom have visited pubs less frequently in recent times”.
Mr Martin reiterated that there had been no outbreaks of COVID-19 among customers in Wetherspoons pubs.
“However, some customers have been understandably cautious,” he said.
“Improvement in trade will therefore depend, to some extent, on the outlook for the COVID-19 virus.
“Whereas we have an increased element of caution about near-term sales, booster vaccinations and better weather in the spring are likely to have a positive impact in the coming months.”
Laura Hoy, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “JD Wetherspoon’s seen a shift in its patrons as the pandemic weighs on confidence among the group’s older and more vulnerable clientele.
“Sales of drinks popular among younger customers have risen while the draughts favoured by more seasoned pub-goers are on the decline.
“Wetherspoons tends to cater to the latter group, so a permanent shift in that direction could be bad news.
“More likely is an abundance of caution among vulnerable populations as COVID continues to spread despite vaccine efforts.
“This attitude should wane as the pandemic comes under control, but there’s no telling how long that will take.”
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