Outside trading: what we’ve learned so far

CGA’s Rachel Weller compares this week’s reopening with the post-lockdown return of summer 2020, and looks at the opportunities and challenges of outdoor service
Rachel Weller, Director of consumer research and marketing

The reopening of hospitality for outdoor trading from Monday has been a very welcome first step on the road to recovery. CGA data showing a 59% increase in like-for-like sales at open venues compared to the equivalent day in 2019—and a 114% jump in drinks sales—adds to the air of cautious optimism about a strong rebound in consumer spending.


The figures compare very well to hospitality’s first return from a long national lockdown. On the reopening weekend of 4th and 5th July 2020, sales were down by 44%, as consumer confidence was low and concerns over safety were high. Four in five (79%) people were taking precautionary measures into account when deciding where to eat or drink, and many were fearful about going out at all.


However, hospitality then did a great job in reassuring people about their safety, and more than nine in ten (92%) were satisfied with the hygiene measures they found on their visits. That was crucial, because first impressions are really important. By proving to guests that they were in safe hands, operators encouraged repeat visits then, and created a readiness to return to hospitality now.


Our Consumer Countdown to Reopening research shows how the success of the vaccine rollout has lifted confidence even higher for this reopening. But as their confidence levels increase, consumers are also sharpening their focus on aspects of hospitality beyond safety. Our recent survey showed that half (51%) of consumers think feeling safe will contribute to a good experience when the market reopens—but even more (57%) feel the same about the quality of food and drinks, and prices (50%) and range (44%) are important too. Back in July 2020, safety was people’s over-riding concern, but they are more demanding about the fundamentals of great hospitality experiences now.


While Monday’s figures were encouraging, we also need to remember the major challenges that come hand in hand with only being able to trade outside. CGA’s research has shown how sales are at the mercy of the British weather, with drinks sales averaging 14% higher on sunny days than on rainy ones—and when you can only serve in the open air, the differential will be much greater.


Conditions this week have been decent enough to tempt people to sit outside—though they have had to wrap up warm at times. But downpours might soon change that, and poor weather will make it much harder to give guests the quality of experience that encourages them to come back.


Even on sunny days, meeting consumers’ high expectations will be challenging. One operator told me this week that their business was having to risk disappointing customers by operating with a severely cut down food menu, as the risk of rain and its impact on covers would cause major wastage and damage profits. CGA’s MealMetrics service confirms the challenge, with the average number of main meal dishes cut from 24 to 14 on Monday.


On top of that, it’s important to note that this week’s reopening was very limited. CGA’s Market Recovery Monitor has shown that fewer than two in five (38.2%) of Britain’s licensed premises have any sort of outdoor trading space, and many of those will have decided that reopening is not practical, not profitable or both.


All this leaves us looking forward even more to the time in four weeks when all venues can open, inside as well as out. This week’s reopening is a start, and a good chance to remind people that they can have both safe and happy times in hospitality, but Monday 17th May is the day that eating and drinking out can properly start to bounce back.


Rachel Weller is CGA’s director of consumer research and marketing. To learn more about how CGA’s consumer insights and market data can support operators and suppliers in their outdoor trading and full reopening strategies, email rachel.weller@cgastrategy.com.

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