Wetherspoon’s struggles to find staff in some parts of England

JD Wetherspoon said it was struggling to find staff in some parts of England as the pub chain counts the cost of the coronavirus pandemic, reporting a record loss of almost £200m.

The founder and chairman, Tim Martin, said overall the pub chain had received a “reasonable number” of applications for vacancies, with employee numbers rising by 3,000 to 42,000 between the end of Wetherspoon’s financial year on 25 July and 20 September. However, it has struggled to find staff in some areas, such as holiday hotspots.

“Some areas of the country, especially ‘staycation’ areas in the West Country and elsewhere, have found it hard to attract staff,” Martin said.

The £195m loss before tax is only the second time the pub chain has fallen into the red since it was publicly listed in 1984, as national closures for 19 weeks, and a range of regional and local lockdowns, took their toll on pub visits. The loss, for the year ending 25 July, compared with a £105m loss the previous year.

Revenues declined 39% to £772m as bar sales fell by 42.2%, food sales dropped 37.4%, slot and fruit machine sales more than halved to 52.5% and hotel room sales decreased by 27.1%.

“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,” Martin said.

“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.”

Wetherspoon’s said business was rapidly picking up – excluding its airport pubs, which are struggling as travel remains depressed – with like-for-like sales of only 4.9% on 2019 levels in the last four weeks.

“The UK’s thirst is not yet quenched,” said Alastair Reid, a leisure sector analyst at Investec. “A variety of actions ensured the company emerged from the crisis in robust health, and the improving trajectory of revenue growth shows they are well positioned to take advantage of the recovery over time.”

Wetherspoon’s said that during its last financial year it opened five pubs and sold or closed 16, resulting in a trading estate of 861 pubs as of 25 July. The company said it paid out £6.2m in staff redundancy and restructuring payments.

Rival pub groups such as Mitchells & Butlers reported a return to pre-pandemic sales levels over the summer. However, Wetherspoon’s is more reliant than rivals on airport sites and city centre pubs, both of which have been slower to experience a recovery in customer numbers.

“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,” Martin said.

However, Russ Mould, the investment director at AJ Bell, warned that staff shortages may become more of a problem as the issue continues to grow across many sectors of the UK economy.

“There is limited mention from Wetherspoon’s of supply chain and staffing problems in its results, beyond some difficulties in attracting people in ‘staycation’ hotspots,” he said. “This is somewhat surprising and it may become more of an issue for the business moving forward.”

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