“Intuition has served us well”: Pano Christou, Pret A Manger

Headshot of Pano Christou, Pret A Manger

“Intuition has served us well”: Pano Christou, Pret A Manger

Digital transformation is driving systemic change, but people remain at the heart of Pret’s business.

3 minute read

“I’ve seen organisations get punch-drunk in decision making because they spend so much time in the weeds of data,” says Pano Christou, CEO of Pret A Manger.

“I’m a big believer in the fact that 99% of the answers to our challenges are in our shops,” says Christou whose 23-year career at Pret has seen him go from shop floor to CEO. “For most of our history, the business has been built on gut-feel, intuition and entrepreneurial spirit which has served us well.”

However, as the business grows, Christou is putting a greater focus on how such important human qualities can be appropriately augmented by data without dimming their impact or importance.

“Having a balance of experience, intuition and data is the sweet-spot we aim for,” he says.

Be wherever the customer is

Since 1986, Pret has grown from one shop in Hampstead to a projected 700-plus locations across four continents by the end of this year. But that upwards trajectory has not been without hurdles to overcome.

The last three years has seen a major restructuring of the business, necessitated by customers’ changing working patterns and characterised by a relocation of stores from city centres to suburbia and service stations. There has also been a greater emphasis on digital engagement, with the Pret app, Club Pret subscription model and online ordering.

Those innovations mean digital transactions accounted for 42% of Pret’s transactions in the first half of 2023 - and brand loyalty and engagement are increasing. Club Pret subscriptions are used 1.25 million times per week (up 11% from 2022) and subscribers transact with Pret 28 times per month compared to an average of twice per month among other customers.

Such developments are also creating valuable data to shape long-term strategy online and offline.

“There’s been a huge investment in the front end as a priority as customers increasingly wanted to transact with us digitally.”

“And we’re using insights from the customer data, analysing where they live rather than where they work, to guide store opening locations.”

Connecting supply chains, customers and kitchens

However, front-end innovations put greater pressure on a back end that was already outdated.

“Our back-end systems are about 20 years old, and they are not even cloud-based,” he says. As such, this year sees Pret kick off a three year back-end transformation project.

“This will transform our operational demand planning, ensuring we have smart, accurate forecasting and rota planning tools, and more accurate ingredient ordering.”

A major benefit of this back-end transformation will be the ability to put more information into the hands of customers, creating greater levels of engagement.

“Once data is flowing from our back-end systems through to our loyalty programmes, we can curate the offering to customer needs, whether through dietary preferences or understanding the carbon footprint of what they are consuming,” says Christou.

However, the complexity of digitising its business model is heightened by the fact Pret prides itself on producing handmade, natural food daily, in small on-site kitchens, unlike many competitors whose sandwiches are manufactured at an industrial-scale at offsite factories.

“A Pret shop is pretty small, and each one has about a day and a half worth of stock,” says Christou. “So that shop has to shut if no food deliveries come in. We need our ordering system integrated into our suppliers, our supply chain, our logistics provider. Decoupling such a monolithic system is a big deal.”

But Christou is in no doubt the effort will be worth it, and the scalability of a more tech-powered business can help support Pret’s growth ambitions. Christou is looking to double the size of the business by 2026, with a particular focus on international expansion through franchising. Pret is currently in 18 different countries and sales outside the UK accounted for 18.9% of the business’s revenue in 2022. The plan is to be in over 20 countries by the end of this year, including their first shops in Africa.

Putting people at the centre of change

A major focus of the company’s tech investment is also on freeing up its people to spend more time interacting with customers and one-another, in keeping with Christou’s belief that data is valuable but people are invaluable.

“Our store managers are the most important people at Pret,” he says.

“If we can take a load of non-value-adding tasks off them, it creates the opportunity to spend their time in better ways.”

Christou says store staff had three pay increases in the 12 months to April 2023, and will ensure wages remain ahead of the national minimum wage when it increases again in April 2024. Staff churn sits at around 65%, which is low for the sector.

“My aim is that we position ourselves as a top quartile employer within our industry, with higher than average pay and benefits, and great career opportunities,” he says.

All but around 5% of Pret’s 8700-strong workforce work on the shop floor and Pret’s recruitment approach is focused on finding people with those prized human qualities, including a passion for customer service and the food they make and sell each day.

“You can't hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be passionate,” he says.

“So we hire passionate people and teach them to make sandwiches.”

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Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Alliance Senior Partner elect - PwC UK and Middle East I Managing Partner & Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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