Proper control equals profitability
Mitchells & Butlers' chief executive Tim Clarke has no doubts about the benefits of responsible retailing for the pub trade: "In the long run, I am absolutely convinced running your pub properly is the most profitable thing you can do period."
The managed operator was among the first to issue an internal guide on responsible retailing back in 2000, with its Alcohol & Social Responsibility Policy.
The guide, which has received several updates, includes sound ideas on cutting excessive drinking and promoting safe and responsible retailing at a time when the practices of pub operators are under the spotlight like never before.
In the latest version of its policy, which came into play at the end of last month, M&B has tackled binge drinking head on by removing drinks deals that offer customers an extra drink without them asking, or paying, for it; promotions such as two-for-ones, or receiving the rest of the bottle when two glasses of wine are ordered, have been scrapped. A minimum price of £1.25 has been set across the 2,000-strong estate. The only exception is if permission has been granted by managing director Mike Bramley in which case, £1 becomes the minimum level. The time limit for drinks deals has been extended to three hours.
M&B has also pledged to comply with the Portman Group's code of conduct when it promotes drinks. This means avoiding anything that associates drinking with anti-social behaviour, sexual success or excessive consumption so no more "yard of ale" contests.
"The critical element is that we make it very clear that we will not use promotional activity where there is a fundamental inducement at the point of transaction," explains Clarke. "We believe in everyday competitive prices but we won't do two-for-one offers."
And soft drinks have been given an extra push, through the Non-Alcoholic Always Available promotion. This means that in any promotion, a non-alcoholic alternative will be offered at the same price, or lower, than an alcoholic drink. The deal will be rolled out to M&B's 550-strong high-street estate over the next six months.
Responsible offers need to be administered by responsible people and M&B has taken great strides in staff training.
Every retail staff member undertakes extensive training through the Stepping Stones scheme. This teaches staff about their legal responsibilities, including not serving under-18s or anyone who is intoxicated.
M&B managers must have completed the British Institute of Innkeeping's National Certificate for Licensees. And, earlier this year, operations directors held seminars on social responsibility to retail business managers, plus directors and general managers.
Clarke says that membership of local pubwatch schemes which see licensees in an area working together to cut pub crime is an "integral" part of the job, and M&B's policy is for all managers to join and support their local schemes.
M&B's commitment to Pubwatch can be seen from an incident in the London borough of Islington last year. An M&B manager, of the O'Neill's in Upper Street, was one of only three representatives from managed pubcos at a council-led seminar on pub safety.
A key part of responsible retailing is ensuring an end to under-age alcohol sales. The problem hit the headlines after the publication of the Government's summer crackdown on irresponsible retailers revealed that 51% of targeted pubs and clubs sold alcohol to minors.
M&B approached the issue this summer with its Challenge 21 campaign, which involves staff asking for ID for anyone who looks under 21.
As well as helping staff faced with the difficulties of identifying under-age drinkers in a busy pub, M&B said it also helped educate customers to carry identification. It proved so successful that the pubco made Challenge 21 posters available to non-M&B outlets as part of local pubwatch schemes. Few pubcos can claim to have avoided being caught out during the sting campaigns, so there is no room for complacency. As Clarke says: "Our attitude is to have no grey areas, as it is one aspect of being granted a licence."
The sector's Rolls-Royce
Mitchells & Butlers was described by the judges as "the Rolls-Royce"of the sector for its quality and depth of commitment to socially responsible retailing.
Other managed operators shortlisted were: Greene King and Yates.