Expert View

Publicans and their P&L

Alan O'Neill works with companies to improve sales through great customer service. In recent months he’s worked with publicans all over Ireland through the VFI.

In the ups and downs of the business world, we’re all very used to dealing with opportunities and threats that come our way. When the threats are as significant and forceful as in recent times, then the learning curve can be very steep indeed.

Publicans, however, have had to cope with a bit more than others due to legislative changes. The smoking ban, below-cost selling in the off-trade – and the more stringent drink-driving laws have directly affected footfall into pubs. The knock-on impact has changed our drinking habits, but not necessarily reduced our alcohol consumption. It just means we’ve shifted our buying pattern and the off-trade is reaping the rewards.

Whether you agree with the legislation or not publicans still have a business to run and they have to answer to their Profit & Loss. So what can they do?

Is it about more events and promotions? No.

Even if the event was the most innovative and interesting idea ever, it could fail if the basics are not right.


Reach for a mirror

Before developing ideas to drive up footfall, you might take time to look at your business from a customer’s perspective. Even if a magic wand doubled your numbers, that doesn’t guarantee success. As with any business your objective is three-fold: you want customers to spend money today but you also want them to come back again sometime in the near-future. And of course you want them to tell their friends about the positive experience. So a good place to start is with the basics.

That might begin with a fresh look and a reminder of who you are as a brand. Every organisation has its own DNA or brand positioning that helps to differentiate it from the competition. For example, Aer Lingus has a very different DNA to Ryanair. Both are strong brands chasing after different customers. But before you click on their respective websites, you know what to expect. Similarly every pub has its own DNA. Whether your DNA was deliberate or shaped by default over time – maybe it’s time to re-look at that and ask yourself what you want it to be. If it’s not clear to you then it’s probably not clear to your staff or customers either.

When you’ve done this, bear in mind your customer base and profile – what kind of customer experience is appropriate? There’s a place for everyone, whether you’re a Three, Four or Five Star outlet. But once it’s been decided where best to fit into the competitive marketplace, then the experience has to live up to that aspiration.

Focusing on the environment – consider what’s important to a customer.

From the car-park, to the exterior, the entrance, to the interior (including the toilets), what message is being conveyed? After this, safety and standards of housekeeping as well as hygiene continue to be critical.

What does the customer see in terms of décor, layout, seating and colour? What do they hear? Is it appropriate to the time of day and the desired customer profile? What can they smell now that the smoking ban has cleared the air?

These things are so basic you might wonder why they’re even mentioned here. Yet there’s much room for improvement across the country. Many publicans will acknowledge that standards need to improve in the industry at large. But rather than criticising others, publicans need to hold up a mirror and take a good look at themselves.

Female customers in particular will be greatly influenced by your standards and will vote with their feet if they’re not acceptable. Following a recent workshop with publicans, one pub saw an increase in female customers and longer dwell times after improving their standards.

In Flanagan’s Mills in Sallins, County Kildare, Barry and Ola put a lot of effort into achieving high standards – with candles on the tables, baskets of female accessories in the restrooms and so on. Their location is not High Street but they now have a high number of female customers.


Get the Product Mix right

In addition to the obvious line-up of branded beers and spirits, what can you do to achieve a Point Of Difference or stand-out from your competitors?

What about having the best pint of Guinness?

Some publicans have developed niche categories such as the most interesting cocktails, the greatest choice of craft beers or the best selection of wines by the glass etc.

It’s interesting too to see that Dublin Airport Authority/Aer Rianta International in Dublin and Cork Duty Free spotted an opportunity in Irish whiskies. They had the vision to specialise with their Irish Whiskey collection in both airports. They have an impressive collection of known and niche branded whiskies that are really well merchandised. Their sales teams are highly trained experts in whiskey and therefore with great enthusiasm will show you a wonderful tasting experience.

In pubs that serve food, there are similar opportunities to differentiate. Sheridan’s near Tuam in Galway have great pride in its seafood chowder and claims that It’s the very best around. Cathal Sheridan promotes it well and customers travel from far and wide to enjoy it – and undoubtedly stay a bit longer too.


Tickle the bar staff

Irish pubs are known the world over for their atmosphere, the range of drinks and – not least – the bar staff. That’s for a number of reasons, including their efficiency and their friendliness.

No customer wants to spend time in a pub with a grumpy or rude bar person. So if it means tickling them at the start of the shift and every hour thereafter, then it mightn’t be a bad idea!

Alternatively – and more appropriately – they might be told what’s expected of them and the implications of the impact they make on your customers. They should also be told about and trained on the DNA of the pub. With that level of communication, they’re less likely to send a mixed message to your customers.


Drive footfall, increase dwell-time

After getting the basics right, only then is it time to think about creative and inspirational ideas to drive footfall, with full confidence that customers will get a good experience. Not only will customers stay longer and spend more money on the day, they’ll come back. And they’ll tell their friends too.




Top tips

Whether you serve food or not, take the time to first of all look at your premises from your customer’s point of view. What do you see? When you’ve made improvements from a standards point-of-view, then look at how you can differentiate with your product mix. What can you shout about? What in your mix is better than your competition?

Finally, don’t forget to include your people. The impact of a fantastic premises and a great drink/food offer will be reduced to zero with bar staff that look like they’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards or have the personality of a robot.

These are basic and simple principles that might appear trivial on paper but have the biggest impact in terms of customer satisfaction. Get them right and watch your sales grow.


Alan O’Neill, Managing Director of Kara Change Management, supported the revamp of Selfridges in the UK – winner of the Best Dept Store in the World award.


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