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Fri 28th Jul 2017 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Burger market is facing the heat, compromise better than cliff edge in Brexit negotiations, and population – it counts and it matters
Authors: Glynn Davis, Paul Chase and David Martin

Burger market is facing the heat by Glynn Davis

“If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff,” Steve Howard, head of sustainability at IKEA, suggested last year. He was referring to the fact we don’t need to own any more physical things – including flat-pack furniture.

This formed part of a predicted move away from owning goods and a trend towards consumers shifting their desires to experiencing things such as eating out and taking more holidays. As good as this sounds for restaurateurs, I get the feeling some food categories are running out of runway and consumers’ appetites are waning. I’d argue we might be on the way to reaching “peak burger”.

Recent global figures from McDonald’s seem to suggest everything is hunky dory in burgerland, but dig deeper into the underlying situation in the US and things aren’t so bright. There has been a decline in the number of burgers consumed, according to the recent Technomic Burger Consumer Trend Report 2017, which although it found as many as 56% of consumers said they eat burgers at least once a week, this reflects a big drop on the 75% recorded in 2013. 

Worryingly for restaurant operators, a growing number of these people are preparing their burgers at home. Part of the reason for this is the increasing prices being charged by leading chains – a rise of 15% since 2013.

This increase is being driven by the growing availability of other foodservice options, which has prompted the creation of an ever more adventurous array of new burger variations, which has typically given them a more premium positioning. In the Technomic research, 35% of respondents thought it “very important” burgers were available with “new and unique flavours”.

Strolling through a throng of young diners recently at the Foodhallen in Amsterdam (a smart food market with more than 20 stalls in a converted tram shed) one of the more popular offerings were burgers from The Butcher.

However, the bog-standard burger wasn’t attracting the queue, rather it was The Butcher’s riffs on the basic patty. Diners were buying the Babaganoush (burger with mashed grilled aubergine and tahini), Truffle Burger, Silence of the Lamb (lamb burgers with spices, herbs and tahini), and The Ugly (a burger wrapped in a fajita with jalapeño, sour cream, avocado and Mexican pepper sauce).

Such changing demands will place pressure on the plethora of premium-priced specialist burger restaurants that have appeared in the UK in recent years. The number of new operators to hit the market has been staggering, including domestic newcomers and successful US brands opening here such as Five Guys and Shake Shack. We also have the situation whereby Wendy’s is considering a return to Britain having previously retreated after it failed to gain traction. It is about to test the waters via a one-day pop-up restaurant.

These operators have all benefited from what was an insatiable appetite for the good old burger. But “peak burger” suggests we have reached the top of the market. This is undoubtedly the finding of Handmade Burger Co, which went into administration earlier this month with nine of its 29 restaurants closing immediately (although the administrator sold the remaining 20 trading sites to an unnamed buyer this week).

Equally worrying for the burger category is the recent “for sale” sign Byron hoisted on four of its outlets. This is a sure-fire sign it recognises it has to rid itself of poorly performing outlets because as operating costs continue to increase there is no way any foodservice business can afford to carry lame, non-contributing units.

This decision by the successful – and operationally very well run – Byron to cut these outlets loose will have been made on economic rationale including, undoubtedly, forecasted demand at these units. Hitting peak burger at a time of toughening market conditions highlights how the specialists in this category will have to make some hard decisions following a period of great buoyancy in the market. It’s pretty clear it has just got a whole lot hotter at the grill for the burger flippers.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Compromise better than cliff edge in Brexit negotiations by Paul Chase

Will Brexit actually happen? New Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable doesn’t think so. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, he said: “I’m beginning to think Brexit might not actually happen.” Tony Blair weighed in, expressing the view it would be stopped – and should be stopped. Are these opinions the wishful thinking of a bunch of “remoaners” or are they on to something?

Certainly in the cabinet there is a clear split between those around chancellor Philip Hammond who want a “soft Brexit” – putting the economy and jobs first – and those who want a “hard Brexit” and believe reducing immigration trumps all other issues. The issue of immigration control is one of huge significance for our sector because of our reliance on immigrant labour – and not just in London. Consider the following statistics:

– In the managed house sector, including pubs, bars, nightclubs and casual dining, 37% of the workforce are non-British nationals

– Across hospitality and tourism as a whole, 24% of the workforce is made up of non-British nationals, with 55% of those coming from outside the EU and where immigration controls are already in force, while 45% are from other EU countries where there are no restrictions on the right to work or live in the UK

– In London, non-British nationals make up 64% of the hospitality and tourism workforce, of which 46% come from other EU countries

I think there is a growing realisation among those who voted “leave” without knowing the destination that a hard Brexit would come at huge economic cost, and without a £350m-a-week bonus for the NHS.

What might a soft Brexit look like or might we decide, having glimpsed the destination, to stay in the EU after all? I think we will leave but it will be a gradual and nuanced affair. The talk of transitional arrangements, based on the difficulty of agreeing everything by March 2019, gives a steer regarding the direction of travel.

I suspect a transitional arrangement may look something like the “Norwegian model” – an “off-the-shelf” Brexit package based on the relationship Norway has with the EU. Its main elements are we would have tariff-free access to the single market for our goods and services but not be part of EU political institutions or subject to “ever closer union” or pressured into joining the single currency. We would not be part of the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy so would regain control of our territorial waters. We would still pay into the EU’s budget but probably about half the current rate. We would not be part of the Customs Union and therefore free to strike our own trade deals with the rest of the world.

What’s not to like? Crucially, the price to be paid for access to the single market would be more than just financial. We would have to abide by EU trade laws and be subject to European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgements; and we would have to agree to free movement of people – subject only to a temporary break clause in the event immigration was causing an acute social or economic problem. Being rule-takers but not rule-makers would mean we’d have no influence over how free trade within the single market might develop.

The points about the ECJ’s jurisdiction and free movement of people are the real sticking points. I suspect this will be sold to us as a transitional arrangement, with the final shape of the “leave deal” to be determined further down the line.

However, deadlines have a habit of slipping and one suspects a transitional arrangement scheduled to last two years could well be extended to three or four years, at which point the politicians would hope we’d all moved on and the transitional arrangement would quietly become permanent. This is shaping up to be that most British of arrangements – a compromise that satisfies neither side. However, it might just save our sector and others from an economic and recruitment cliff edge. Either way, I think a hard Brexit is dead unless the hardliners are bent on a strategy of keeping their hostage in Downing Street while trying to provoke a breakdown in negotiations and a walk-out of British officials from the talks. I, for one, favour a compromise rather than a cliff edge.
Paul Chase is a director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on on-trade health and alcohol policy

Population – it counts and it matters by David Martin

To borrow an old adage from the market research world – not everything that matters can be counted, and not everything that can be counted matters.

To the former point we need only look at the political world. Last year, it taught us a lesson about how data and reason can be trumped, so to speak, by emotion. It signified the power of feelings versus numbers, and reminds us that the importance of issues is not linked to their ability to be measured.

There are plenty of important things businesses don’t know because they are difficult to measure, despite all that Big Data. One question, for example, which becomes increasingly pertinent in a crowded eating-out market, is if a customer stops coming to us, where have they gone, and why?

However, our biggest failing perhaps is to ignore widely available numbers that have a fundamental influence on our market. They somehow seem to hide in plain sight. Nothing better illustrates this point than the issue of population size.

The UK population is measured consistently, exhaustively and officially. The detailed data is publicly available, yet for all the commentary and analysis of the out-of-home market’s performance, the effects of population change seem to be ignored.

There are several contributory factors at play here. Firstly, we are in an instant, short-term age but population change moves in slow-motion, and this encourages us to overlook its powerful accumulative effects. Secondly, in recent years population size has been overshadowed by political priority given to migration numbers. Thirdly, it’s a retrospective measure, and those can seem less seductive than “visionary” forecasts of the future. Lastly, it’s a number that for many years remained largely constant – and as with any static metric, it can lead us to complacently ignore it.

In the early 1970s, the UK population was 56 million, and it remained largely unchanged for another ten years. Even by 1993, the population had only grown to 57.7 million. Just as in recent times we have become accustomed to ignoring the effects of inflation on market trends – and that’s a lazy habit we need to lose quickly – the influence of population size on national market demand has receded into the background to the point of perceived unimportance.

But consider the data for the most recent decade for which data is available. From 2005 to 2015, the UK population increased markedly and steadily, from 60.4 million to 65.1 million, with net migration accounting for more than half this increase.

In percentage terms, population growth averaged 0.8% per annum during those ten years to 2015, a significant “assist” to all consumer markets, yet it is rarely if ever acknowledged when industry sales or traffic trends are discussed. Put differently, those extra 4.7 million people equate to the combined population of Lancashire, Surrey, Hertfordshire and Tyne and Wear.

Even if we only focus on the 75% of the UK population aged 18 to 80, the out-of-home market has gained 350,000 extra consumers every year for the past decade. Assuming 90% of these extra consumers eat out and 75% drink out, the market benefited from more than three million extra out-of-home diners, and over 2.5 million out-of-home drinkers during the decade.

CGA Peach data shows the net number of restaurants in Great Britain increased by 27% in the ten years to the end of last year, an increase of more than 5,700. This is impressive sectoral growth but it has been supported by population growth of more than 7%. Meanwhile, the net number of pubs and bars contracted by more than 20% – almost 15,000 fewer outlets. That’s serious enough but the decline would almost certainly have been greater without the compensation of unusually strong levels of population and household growth.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) issued its updates of real-term household spending data earlier this year. Amid the coverage, the Financial Times headline was typical: “Sociable Britons spending more on eating and drinking out.” It was not alone in falling for the line that “households spent more than £45 a week on restaurants and hotels for the first time in five years”. Observant readers would realise this meant households spent less on those categories than they were doing six years ago. Indeed, the ONS data suggests per-household real-term spending on “restaurants and hotels” is still lower than it was ten years ago before the financial crisis. What doesn’t get reported is the small matter there are 7% more households in the country now.

A comparison of population growth versus ONS spending data suggests at least half the eating out market’s recent value growth could be attributed to population increase (and much of that has come from net immigration). That’s a potentially inconvenient truth when we think about the near-term future.

The flood of investment pouring into the eating out market in the past decade will have placed much of its rationale on forecasts of continued demand growth. Those forecasts are usually (and fairly) predicated on behavioural trends – but they tend to neglect the influence of future population trends, and they are now clouded by uncertainty.

The current ONS population projections forecast 7% growth in the ten years to 2024 (worth 4.5 million more people) but they include the assumption that, again, more than 50% of that growth will be driven by net migration.

But what if those migration assumptions are blown by Brexit? Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London and former head of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, observed recently: “I think EU migration will fall significantly over the next couple of years, and migration overall will fall. Therefore the population increase may be significantly slower than the ONS states.”

Market demand will be unpredictable at best as we move through the Brexit process. However, it will certainly not be helped by any slowdown in population growth – and that’s a number you can count on.
David Martin is managing director of market and customer insight resource Red Circle

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