Soviet era Pret

by Martin MacConnol – Jul 31, 2020

Have you ventured inside a Pret recently? It’s like something George Orwell would have described if his classic novel had been set in 2020 not 1984.

Of course, it’s not Pret’s fault. Like all of us they are just playing the cards they’ve been dealt. But the experience feels like something from the Soviet era. Fewer customers mean shelves are relatively bare, not quite at the “meat option” versus “vegetable option” level, but not hugely far off. And then of course there are the glass protective panels, the empty seating areas and the endless instructions on how to move and behave.

Pret was meant to be a highlight in a day spent in my new office this week. But being back in Covent Garden just reminded me how completely our world has changed. Truly it gives some insight into what living in a mad totalitarian regime must be like. Everywhere are the directional instructions. Every interaction is a chance to do the wrong thing (“Oh I didn’t think I needed a mask here”). Everyone is seemingly looking at everyone else to see if they are being compliant with the latest regulations.

Of course, things will improve when the pandemic is behind us (will we ever reach that glorious day?). But the impact on our psyches will mean the economic difficulties will last a lot longer. At another coffee shop (it was a day of Soviet treats) I found myself noting the price of the coffee and green tea I was buying: £6.

In the old days I doubt I would ever have questioned the amount as I clicked my phone down on the contactless reader. But now, after weeks of being able to make my own day-time drinks and lunches, I have become aware of the price of a Pret Sandwich, a coffee shop tea-bag. They don’t feel like good value compared to making them myself in the comfort of my own home.

The devil is in the detail, as the saying goes. And this little bit of detail makes my business antenna twitch. Value for money is going to be the order of the day in all things for quite some time to come – and not just because we have a hobbled economy. My suspicion is people have got out of the simple habit of spending money on little things and big things. We have one pitch ongoing at the moment with a process that in the old days would have looked onerous for a project ten times the scale. But these days we are not arguing. Like every business we need clients to get back into the habit of spending.

Back to life in Covent Garden. I agree with the rules and masks from a health point of view, but they are not going to help reignite the economy or spark people’s desire to be consumers once again.

Many of the boutiques near our new office are open once again, but they are largely empty. The whole area has the feeling of a theme park where you’ve paid extra to be able to get in an hour before the crowds. That may be fun at DisneyWorld, but in a city where the few people walking around are all wearing masks it’s more than a little dystopian. And dystopian has never been synonymous with economic growth: think of 1984.

Published Jul 31, 2020

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