Why Pret’s £4.50 cheddar baguette made me swear I’d never buy from the chain again

A Pret A Manger fancy cheddar baguette was once my favorite workday treat.

The cheese is plentiful, the pickle has just the right balance of tart and sweet, mayonnaise and cress elevate it above its high street rivals.

But a few months ago I swore I would never buy one again, or anything else from the ubiquitous coffee chain.

That’s because it introduced a 20 percent discount on food for subscribers to its Club Pret loyalty program in September last year.

In exchange for paying a nice €30 per month, members get up to five cups of coffee per day for free, plus a discount on food.

Loyal customer: But Money Mail editor Rachel Rickard Strauss ditches Pret A Manger after growing tired of their high prices

Now we have to put up with two prices being presented for each article: the reasonable-sounding subscriber price and the comparatively outrageous price that non-subscribers will have to jack up unless we hand over the equivalent of £360 a year.

I couldn’t bring myself to subscribe or pay the higher price. Handing over £4.50 for a glorified cheese sarnie feels rich enough – and a stark reminder that I need to make my own at home.

But if I pay that when Pret can clearly make a profit selling the same sandwich for £3.60, I won’t be able to have lunch at all.

And I’m not the only one confused by Pret. The Trustpilot account is full of reviews from customers dealing with high prices.

At the time of writing, it has a rating of 1.9 out of five. The page on X, formerly Twitter, is also littered with comments about prices.

And in recent weeks, Pret has infuriated some subscribers by forcing them to log into the app every time they wanted to claim drinks or discounts.

This meant they could no longer share their membership with friends and family. And problems with the system meant some customers had trouble logging in.

Co-founder Julian Metcalfe, who sold his stake in 2018, said his heart goes out to “customers who feel let down.” Pret said the issues affected a small number of subscribers and have been resolved.

The company is also grappling with a £700 million debt pile that has ballooned during the coronavirus crisis, higher costs, a reduction in the number of office workers – and the challenge of convincing people pressured by rising costs of living to move almost Pay £4 for a cup of coffee.

It’s no wonder Pret announced a boardroom shake-up last week and plans to bring back co-founder Sinclair Beecham to get the company back on track.

Posh sarnie: Pret's cheddar baguette is a cut above your average supermarket sandwich, but the £4.50 price tag, reduced to £3.60 with the loyalty scheme, leaves a bitter taste

Posh sarnie: Pret’s cheddar baguette is a cut above your average supermarket sandwich, but the £4.50 price tag, reduced to £3.60 with the loyalty scheme, leaves a bitter taste

So what went wrong? After all, when the first branch – in Victoria, London – was opened by the two university friends in 1986, it was a breath of fresh air on the High Street.

David Sables, CEO of Sentinel Management Consultants, thinks Pret has done the math and decided it’s worth annoying customers like me a little.

He says the subscription makes regular customers more engaged and keeps them coming in every time they have to choose between Pret and an alternative coffee shop.

The subscription was used 1.25 million times a week in April last year and according to Pret figures, subscribers spend almost 30 percent more per transaction than non-subscribers.

“Once you sign up, you can’t justify going anywhere else because you have to pay the subscription,” says Mr Sables.

He adds that Pret subscribers spend more because they come in for their ‘free’ coffee at times of the day when they are also likely to be thinking about food: breakfast when they get coffee in the morning, lunch in the afternoon.

He adds: ‘The risk is that it will irritate passers-by who used to come in occasionally but are now put off by the non-subscriber pricing model.

‘But Pret has clearly decided that it gains more from encouraging loyal customers than it loses from alienating those who come in occasionally.’

However, Clive Black, retail analyst at Shore Capital, points out that no other coffee shop uses a subscription model. He says: ‘Pret is trying to capitalize on loyalty and the question is whether it works.’

He doubts many more people will have the level of loyalty to a coffee brand needed to grow Pret’s subscription base.

The company aims to have 500 stores in Britain by the end of the year. But Mr Black warns: ‘The Pret brand will only travel so far beyond London and the homelands. It can never reach the level of 2-3,000 stores that Greggs, for example, enjoys.”

In recent weeks, Pret infuriated some loyalty club subscribers by forcing them to log into the app every time they wanted to claim drinks or discounts

In recent weeks, Pret infuriated some loyalty club subscribers by forcing them to log into the app every time they wanted to claim drinks or discounts

Richard Hyman, a retail consultant, says: ‘You used to be able to buy coffee with money you had rolling around in your pocket or purse – it didn’t feel like real money. Now the prices make you think.’

He adds that consumers understand that food stores have had to increase their prices. “But there is a sensitivity around pricing and a tipping point that retailers cross at their own peril,” he adds.

Today, Pret’s tuna mayo baguette costs £4.50 for non-members – or £5.40 to eat in – up from £2.99 in December 2021, while a flat white has risen from £2, according to coffee manufacturer UCC Coffee. 85 to £3.90.

In February, Pret cut prices on some of its best-selling items after claims it was overcharging.

The cheddar baguette was reduced by £1 to £3.99 – although when I bought one in London’s High Street Kensington yesterday the full price was £4.50.

So what could Pret do to tempt me back?

First show that they are not as expensive as we think. After all, they are not much more expensive than, for example, Starbucks or Caffe Nero.

Second, bring back the old loyalty program where baristas could give out a free coffee every now and then.

I have rarely felt as warm towards a brand as when I walked into a Pret after a difficult day and was given a free croissant by a barista who said: ‘You look like you could use this.’

I told everyone I spoke to that day: Can you really put a price on such good publicity?

Finally, Pret has upset people who enjoyed sharing their subscription. This is no way to treat anyone since you have to wait 30 minutes between ordering each drink, but what about offering subscribers a 20 percent discount on additional drinks?

Do you think Pret A Manger offers good value?


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