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How A Sandwich Can Lie: Why Pret's Profit Surge Doesn't Mean We're All Back In The Office


Pret a Manger, the ubiquitous office worker's sandwich shop, is back in profit.

A bellwether for the health of the city centre business districts within which its stores tend to cluster, Pret’s return to profit looks like a sign that the return to work is real.

But think again. Data published a few days before the Pret results tells a different, less obviously positive story about town and city centres.

The good news is that Pret is unlikely to vacate its existing portfolio of 442 UK stores, and with strong performance in regional cities and suburban locations, the prospect of further expansion in these locations is tangible.

Having lost around £570M during the first two years of the pandemic, half-year results for the first six months of 2022 suggested annualised turnover of £357.8M. The business returned to profit in March, The Guardian reported.

Pret announced last year that it planned to expand into five new markets by the end of 2023, including opening 200 more UK shops in the next two years. The firm said it would “follow the skyscrapers” into regional cities, as well as opting for suburban locations. Today about a third of its portfolio is in London.

However, the latest weekly sales data published by the UK’s Office for National Statistics shows the week ending 23 June was uneven.

Pret outlets in suburban London and Yorkshire — home to the growing financial centre of Leeds — did well, both sustaining sales at roughly 120% of the pre-pandemic norm. However, the bulk of the growth was in London airports as the holiday trade resumed. Sales here were 138% of the pre-pandemic levels.

Town and city centres suffered from both a looming strike by railway workers and the summer exodus, but were on a rocky path before these events added further instability.

Sales fell back at the end of May as the reality of the cost-of-living crisis began to dawn, and have remained below their recent peak. Outlets at regional stations were also struggling before the rail strike, suggesting the return to work is far from complete. A summer influx of tourists helped lift sales in both London’s West End and Manchester, but the effect has not been sustained.

Pret runs around 550 shops across five markets in the UK, U.S., France, Dubai and Hong Kong.