Why have Pret prices risen so fast?

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

Price rises at Pret have been the subject of much City chatter as workers have returned to their desks after the summer holidays. While it might once have been possible to grab a lunch of a sandwich, drink and snack for under a fiver, now it is increasingly hard to get much change from a tenner.

Such is the popularity of the sandwich firm with workers in the Square Mile — it has around 40 outlets, many just a few yards from each other — that since the outbreak of Covid, footfall at its stores has been used by the Office for National Statistics as a barometer for the rate at which staff have ditched working from home for a return to the City.

Data released by the Financial Times earlier this month showed Pret’s sandwich prices had risen by as much as 90% compared with 2020, significantly higher than the rate of food inflation.

But are these price hikes fair?

The data used — scraped from historical websites using the WayBack machine — was from Pret’s online menu. But price rises for online orders have been much steeper than those in its stores. For example, its egg sandwich, which rose some 91% in price between 2020 and 2023 online, only rose 72% in-store, according to a dataset supplied to the Standard by Pret, while its tuna baguette, up 67% online, is only up 42% in-store.

Fewer than 4% of Pret’s orders are online, the sandwich chain told this paper. In short, those much steeper prices are reserved for City folk who are basically price inelastic — think team awayday sandwich break at a bank, or a team working lunch at a hedge fund.

Second, almost every other fast-food outlet in London seems to be doing the same thing. Figures obtained by the Standard shows prices at chains Leon, Subway and McDonald’s have all increased by comparable amounts over the same period.

The price of a McDonald’s Big Mac, for example, is up 64% since 2020, while a McChicken Sandwich is up 54% and a double cheeseburger is up 47%.

Over at Subway, an Italian BMT is up 61% since 2020, while a tuna sandwich is up 61% and a chicken tikka sandwich is up 58%. A fish finger wrap is up 51% at Leon, while chicken nuggets are up 35%.

“It’s the entire industry raising prices after being absolutely hammered by a triple whammy of Brexit, the pandemic and now soaring food and energy costs,” said Zoe Adjey, senior lecturer in hospitality and events at Royal Docks School of Business and Law, University of East London.

“The war in Ukraine, one of Europe’s biggest food producers, has caused huge supply constraints and price rises in things like wheat and cooking oil, while electricity bills are up as much as three times on the start of last year.

“Plus it’s now costing far more money to keep staff in those jobs — workers on low pay at places like McDonald’s are being tempted away to supermarkets like Aldi who are pushing up their wages.

“I would reject [accusations of greedflation] because these outlets are so price dependent on their markets… they still need the footfall. The fast food industry is going through a period of intense competition and it’s a case of survival of the fittest.”

A Pret spokesperson said: “Pret has significantly invested in lower prices for customers through our highly successful loyalty programme, Club Pret.”

A Subway spokesman said: “Subway restaurants are independently owned and operated. Each franchisee makes their own pricing decisions to ensure their viability within a trade area. On average, across our menu, prices for Subs have increased by 22% between 2020 and 2023. This increase is largely set against market pressures, with food inflation costs on average increasing by 26% between 2019 and 2023.”

A McDonald’s spokesperson said pricing figures quoted by the Standard “could not be said to represent our broader estate” because “we don’t have a definitive list of prices as ultimately, franchisees decide these on a restaurant by restaurant basis”.

Leon said: “With costs of food, labour and utilities rising in retail, grocery and hospitality all across the UK, price increases are unavoidable — however, we work closely with our team and suppliers to ensure our menu is both high-quality and affordable.”

City workers, it seems, will continue to have to dig deeper for their lunchtime meal.