News Analysis: Giving Drinkers What They Want

Article excerpt

From smoking bans to TV installation, JD Wetherspoon is constantly evolving to satisfy customers.

JD Wetherspoon positions itself as a pioneering pub company. Its business premise of running music-free pubs that offer all-day food set it apart from its rivals and gained it publicity - but ultimately has led to notoriety.

In some circles its 'no-frills' approach has made it a byword for downmarket, and since floating in 1992, it has been affected by the same tough market forces as its rivals.

Wetherspoon is also gaining a reputation for marketing U-turns. Last week, the company turned its no-TV policy on its head when it announced that it would be introducing two flat-screen TVs into each of its pubs - conveniently, in time for the World Cup, which kicks off in June. The move could make it difficult for observers to believe that it has any real long-term strategy.

Nevertheless, it remains a successful business. Wetherspoon has more than 640 UK outlets, and its practice of converting churches and other disused buildings has given it a diverse property portfolio that covers everything from city-centre venues to pubs in small market towns, airports and seaside resorts.

In April 2004 the company's chairman, Tim Martin, called on the government to ban smoking in all pubs, whether or not they served food. He said an outright ban would be the best way forward for the pub industry, and better in the long term than a piecemeal ban.

In trying to address the issue, Wetherspoon has invested more than pounds 60m over the past 12 years to accommodate both sides, through the use of ventilation systems and non-smoking areas.

Non-smoking trials

Holding up precedents including the 1998 ban on smoking in California bars and restaurants, it said that pubs and restaurants can thrive after a couple of very lean years following a smoking ban.

In 2004, Martin suggested it would be commercial suicide for any pub company to prohibit smoking in the absence of a nationwide ban by the government. While it has not yet banned smoking from its entire estate, Wetherspoon has more than 50 non-smoking pubs and plans to steadily increase that number.

It claims it is adopting this approach to gain competitive advantage: when a ban comes into effect it will already have learned many lessons that will be of use in enforcing the legislation.

Overall sales in Wetherspoon's first no-smoking pubs fell by 7% immediately after conversion. Chief executive John Hutson admits sales could have been better, but says the company is 'richer for the experience'.

While other pub chains are working to address the issue, none have gone as far as introducing fully non-smoking pubs. Greene King is preparing its Scottish estate for the ban that is due to come into force there in March, while Charles Wells, with an estate numbering 250 pubs, is trialling non-smoking in a few of its pubs and believes it can work. …