JD Wetherspoon has reported that, contrary to some forecasts – including its own – trade has been positive in the centre of many larger cities and towns and negative in the suburbs.
In the 15 weeks to 7 November, comprising the pub group's first quarter and a further fortnight, it has observed an uplift in places like Liverpool, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Oxford, Chester, Bournemouth and Cardiff, but not in central London.
As expected, trade has been lower in airports, stations and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where some restrictions still apply.
Like-for-like sales for the first 15 weeks of the financial year were 8.9% lower than the record sales achieved in the same period in 2019. Bar sales were down 9.6%, food down 8.1%, fruit/slot machines down 12.3% and hotels were up 11.5%. This was an improvement compared to sales of -17.8% in the 10 weeks to 25 July, the end of the previous financial year, when pubs reopened inside, although restrictions applied for most of that trading period.
In the last 15 weeks, the group said it had seen a considerable increase in sales of the range of drinks often consumed by younger customers, for example cocktails, vodka and rum. In contrast, draught products, more often consumed by older customers, have been under pressure, with traditional ales down by 30% and stout down by 20%, for example.
Food volumes appeared to have been affected by some customers working from home, with breakfasts down by 22% and coffee down by 30%.
The group said supply chain problems had eased in recent weeks, but that the busy Christmas period was yet to come.
Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said: "With no music in Wetherspoon pubs (apart from 46 trading as Lloyds), a material proportion of our trade comes from older customers, some of whom have visited pubs less frequently in recent times.
"As outlined in our annual report, published in October 2021, there have been no outbreaks of Covid-19, as defined by the health authorities, among customers in Wetherspoon pubs.
"However, some customers have been understandably cautious. 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."