Pubs and restaurants enjoyed their best festive season for three years, but sales figures are still yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The latest figures from Fourth, the software provider for the hospitality, retail and leisure industries, reveal how December sales were way up against the Omicron-hit Christmas of 2021, but still significantly down compared to 2019.

The figures show combined sales between pubs and restaurants in December were up by 28% compared to 2021. These will have been boosted by the FIFA World Cup being held in December as well as it being the first Christmas without trading restrictions for three years.

However, sales were 1% down when set against 2019. When inflation and price rises are considered, it indicates hospitality is still some way behind pre-pandemic levels.

Restaurants sales were 2% higher in December 2022 than 2019, but were down in November (-5%) and October (-2%) when compared to three years ago.

Pub sales were 30% up compared to December 2021, but 8% down against December 2019.

The cost-of-living crisis, rising energy prices, snow, and industrial action by rail workers in December, have hit hospitality at a time when consumer confidence is still yet to fully return following the pandemic.

The best sales days of the month were across the first two weekends of December, indicating that customers were more likely to stay at home in the run up to Christmas, repeating the same habits we saw last year.

New Year’s Eve was a success for the trade with pubs seeing sales up 39% compared to 2021 and 1% versus 2019. Restaurant sales were up 38% compared to 2021 and 4% against 2019.

The Top 5 Sales Days in Hospitality in 2022 were: 1. Saturday December 3; 2. Friday December 9; 3. Saturday December 10; 4. Saturday December 17; 5. Saturday December 31.

The number of hours staff are collectively working is growing at a faster rate than overall headcounts. This indicates that pubs and restaurants are being more efficient and getting more from their teams.

Overall headcounts in December 2022 were 5% higher compared to 2021 but were 11% lower than in 2019. The hours worked in 2022 were 15% higher than 2021, but 14% lower than in 2019. These figures may also be reflective of hospitality businesses being forced to adapt their opening hours to help them cope with pressures related to soaring energy costs and inflation.

Fourth’s findings also reveal that staff in hospitality were more productive in December 2022. A spend per labour hour metric, which shows productivity by calculating total sales and dividing this by hours worked, was £42.69 in December, compared to £38.13 in 2021 and £37.10 in 2019.

Sebastien Sepierre, managing director – EMEA, Fourth, said: “Christmas 2022 was supposed to be the time when hospitality could finally rejoice and enjoy the fruits of a festive season that was not severely impacted by covid-related trading restrictions. To a point, that was the case, with sales comfortably exceeding the returns of both December 2021 and 2020.

“However, as Fourth’s figures show, there is still some way to go to get back to pre-pandemic levels – and this is despite the added bonus of a winter World Cup being held in December. The circumstances hospitality faces in the form of the cost-of-living crisis, inflation, recruitment, and consumer confidence remain and will continue to challenge performance in 2023.

“The hours staff are working indicates that hospitality businesses are getting more from their workforce. Recruitment and retention of talent will continue to be key areas of focus for management teams this year. Technology and digital solutions have a major role to play here in helping operators hire, onboard, and engage team members. Labour scheduling strategies will also be essential in ensuring staff continue to offer the highest levels of customer service.”

Fourth has just released its ‘Deep Dive into 2022’s Christmas trading’ Hospitality Workforce Report, providing a detailed breakdown on data related to sales and the UK workforce including solutions to how businesses can tackle the ongoing challenges.