Wetherspoon like-for-like sales are still below 2019 levels, the company has reported, with sales down 38.8% to £772.6m in the 52 weeks ended 25 July. It made a loss before tax of £154.7m.
Chairman Tim Martin said: “Like-for-like sales in the first nine weeks of the current financial year were 8.7% lower than the same weeks in August and September 2019, before the pandemic started. In the last four weeks of the period, like-for-like sales were minus 6.4%.
Excluding airport pubs, where like-for-like sales declined by 47.3%, like-for-like sales declined by 7.1% in the first nine weeks, and by 4.9% in the last four. Total employee numbers averaged 39,025 in the financial year, which increased to 42,003 for the week ending 20 September 2021.
On average, Wetherspoon has received a reasonable number of applications for vacancies, as indicated by the increase in employee numbers, but some areas of the country, especially ‘staycation’ areas in the West Country and elsewhere, have found it hard to attract staff.
During the pandemic, the pressure on pub managers and staff has been particularly acute, with a number of nationwide and regional pub closures and reopenings, often with very little warning, each of which resulted in different regulations.
In the last year, the country moved, in succession, from lockdown, to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, to curfews, to firebreaks, to pints with a substantial meal only, to different tier systems and to further lockdowns. Pub management teams, and indeed the entire hospitality industry, had an almost impossible burden in trying to communicate often conflicting and arbitrary rules to customers. One of the most surprising statistics has been the apparent low level of transmission of the virus in pubs.
For example, in more than 50 million customer visits, recorded in the second half of 2020, before the introduction of vaccines, Wetherspoon had zero outbreaks of the virus, as defined by the health authorities, among customers. Yet there has clearly been a high level of transmission in some other environments, including private parties, weddings, production facilities, university halls of residence and homes. Pubs have been at the forefront of business closures during the pandemic, at great cost to the industry – but at even greater cost to the Treasury.
Despite these difficulties, Wetherspoon is cautiously optimistic about the outcome for the financial year, on the basis that there is no further resort to lockdowns or onerous restrictions.
Wetherspoon has also moved to counteract the negative effects of corporate governance by encouraging long-serving directors, and is planning the promotion of a number of “worker directors”, who are experienced pub or area managers, to board positions.
It is hoped, they say, that the creation of more experience of the ‘front line’ at board level will help to protect the DNA of the business for future generations.
The biggest threat to the pub industry, the report says, relates to the precedent set by the government for the use of lockdowns and draconian restrictions, imposed under emergency powers. This threat, which is also a threat to civil society and democracy, has been regularly articulated by many commentators, including the former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption.”