Themed pubs at heart of high-street gold rush

There is no doubt that the leisure and retailing businesses on the receiving end of consumer spending are feeling a lot more optimistic than they have for years.

The clearest sign of the times is the explosive growth of themed pubs and restaurants,and the increasingly frenetic rush by big companies to grab a slice of the action.

The takeover of the Pelican group of French brasserie-style restaurants by Whitbread for pounds 133m was quickly followed by a pounds 100m bid by Rank for the Tom Cobleigh chain of pubs. Both companies have thrived on the rapid spread of eating-out which in less than a decade has transformed a visit to a restaurant from expensive treat to weekly, almost routine event.

According to figures from researchers at the Henley Centre the market for eating out has grown from pounds 16.2bn a year in 1992 to more than pounds 20bn. Their expectation is that by 2000 we will be spending almost pounds 30bn a year on eating out.

That has caused a revolution in the British pub sector, where the dingy boozers of a decade or so ago are fast being transformed into friendly drinking and eating places designed to attract families, and women.

Hotels, too, are flourishing - especially in London. A renaissance in the capital's tourist industry is driving occupancy and room rates higher than at any point since the Gulf war sent the business into a tailspin.

In the retail market, recent profits reported by Oasis, Moss Bros, Austin Reed and Tesco reflect rising sales and, in some cases, customers trading up to more expensive items.

But this is not yet the 1980s revisited. Consumers may be spending more but they are more careful about how they spend, and on what. As Rowland Gee, the managing director of Moss Bros, said: "It is still a very challenging market. People are much more cautious."

Thorntons, the confectionery chain that fell on hard times after the last boom, now admits times have changed. "It was easy in the Eighties," said the company's new chief executive, Roger Paffard. "Now you have to have the right products in exactly the right size shop in exactly the right place."

But for every success story such as Next, John Lewis and Tesco, there is a tale of hardship, as suffered by House of Fraser, WH Smith and Kwik Save.

One reason is price. Shoppers want value for their money - not just low prices. John Lewis's slogan, "Never knowingly undersold", is perfect for the current climate. Sales in its department stores are soaring.

Branding is another factor. In more frugal times it is retailers with the best names, such as Boots, and Marks & Spencer that prosper. Next - one of the high street's best performers - has refocused its brand after losing its way at the beginning of the Nineties. So has Habitat. Laura Ashley is attempting to rebuild an identity.

Demographic change is also playing a part. With an ageing population, retailers who serve a slightly older demographic group stand to gain. The signs are already there, with good figures last week from Moss Bros and Austin Reed.

The best retailers are also developing increasingly dominant positions in their sectors. The gap between the best and the rest is growing. For example, while many of its rivals struggle, Dixons is powering ahead in the huge boom in sales of multimedia PCs.

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