CJ + Coke Retail Insights: Pret & the Right Ingredients

By Patrick von Sychowski | December 4, 2016 9:43 pm PST
Pret Coke Corinne Thibaut Matthew Wilson

Celluloid Junkie has partnered with the Coca-Cola Company for a series of sponsored features highlighting what Coke does in cinemas, as well as exploring insights in retail inside and outside the cinema industry from various companies.

Our first feature is an edited talk and Q&A given at Coke’s CineEurope seminar by Matthew Wilson, former Group Head of Design at Pret-a-Manger, explaining what gives the premium sandwich shop its unique DNA in terms creating food, stores, service and ambiance that engages on a deep level with its customers in the UK and around the world.

CJ + Coke Retail Insights


When I was asked to do this talk, apart from being extremely honoured, my next thought was what on earth could I talk about. So, I thought I would tell you a story.

Working with some of the worlds leading brands [Raleigh Bikes, Reebok, White Stuff, Calvin Klein, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, French Connection, Jimmy Choo] has taken me pretty much around the world and given me insight into many different ways of working.

In my latest role [at Pret] I have been involved in all strategic projects as Group Head of Design overseeing new formats to new markets and emerging markets from the United States to Shanghai, all of which come with their own challenges.

I started off as a designer and I am still a designer at heart.  However I am now truly a retailer that uses design as a vehicle to obtain retail solutions. This is by no means a master class, but I would like to share with you some of my experiences and what I feel are some of the right ingredients.

Matthew Wilson, Prêt a Manger
Matthew Wilson, Prêt a Manger

Growth of Food and Beverage
Pret approached me in 2009 looking for a “blue sky thinking architect/designer to take the brand forward”.  That is definitely not me!  A year later the phone call came.  Can you please come and talk to us again.

I had spent all of my career in the fashion industry and unbeknown to me I was about to step onto the biggest roller coaster of my career.

Food is fast paced and an operational art form.  In fact the operations were my starting point. Like in any business smooth and hopefully simplified operations often bring success.

Unlike fashion environments the public are brutal with the shops. Lunch times were and are incredible….There is nothing like the hunger of the working masses.

Durability and Low maintenance now had to come hand in hand with aesthetics and brand messaging.

But one thing I quickly learnt Food and Beverage has an advantage over general retail…


It is one of the few industries that stood up well in the recession of 2008. ‘Retail Therapy’ was just what the bankers ordered, but less sales in retail meant an increase in sales for Food and Beverage. Why? Simply this. Treating yourself to a day out with coffee and a cake was cheaper than ending the day with a retail purchase.

Over the last 15 plus years good food has become a staple diet of the high street. The consumer is demanding fresher food and more choice. As a result more and more operators have emerged and expanded.

2008, a year that instils fear in most retailers was actually an opportunity for food and beverage if they could get the ingredients right. As the number of high street shops decreased the number Food and Beverage outlets started to increase in number.

Now in its 31st year, Pret is one of the most honest and ethical brands that I have ever had the pleasure to work with.  Ethics and morals are at the heart of this business.  From its foundation trust to animal welfare and care for its people Pret stands out as a leader in its field.  The culture of feel good is a genuine sense of belonging.

Recognition for Change

Recognition for deliberate change is incredibly important. Not ethically but aesthetically.

Reaction to market trends along with deep customer insights and being mindful of the founders original vision helps round up the objectives of the business.

Remaining true to your core offering whilst understanding that expansion in offer and territories is the way forward.

In 2009 Pret recognised, and more importantly had the desire, to change. Expansion was on the horizon and the image was dated.

Customer expectation was beginning to grow. Historically the graph looked a little like this.

Matthew Wilson, Prêt, fast food expectations 1
The more you spend the more you expect from your environment.

Matthew Wilson, Prêt, fast food expectations 2

However, the expectation of the consumers was shifting and why not offer a great environment for all.

Getting the brief correct

One of the hardest things to get correct when operators meet with creative is objectives of the brief. I’m often asked what is the first thing I do as a designer on a projects. My answer is I always:


Its important that the creatives understand the operators challenges. Not only that, but designers and creative in area whether it be environment, marketing or the great ‘internet of things’ ultimately the objective is to enhance the business both visibly and essentially financially.

Designers need to take on board that in a commercial world, and especially on F&B retail that the end result must be enhanced sales.

Getting the brief correct and understanding your objectives. THIS IS KEY. Spend time and energy getting this right.

It’s a document that should explain all to all so include as much detail as possible.

  • An Outline summery of the business and the projects
  • Key Brand Objectives
  • Key Business Objectives
  • All considerations….Make sure the team are fully aware of the do’s and don’ts!
  • Design Scope…In other words, what do the team need to produce
  • Also ensure, you have key dates and deliverables. It must have touch points that decision making datesIt is your ‘go to’ document whenever you feel that he project is drifting.

Always: Ensure you agree a single objective

Design is a process that can help businesses understand the outcome and objectives through creative solutions.

That’s where some times subjectivity plays a part. It is hard to quantify and some one will inevitably not like the colour blue but you cannot please everyone all of the time.

At some point you will find that every design project extends beyond the brief and as Designers we love to push it as far as we can. The brief is simply a stake in the ground.

Part of a designer’s job must be to design tools, conversations, experiences, and environments that help the organisation embrace innovation and change. You need to bring everyone along with you. You get the buy-in from all and give people a voice and getting a steer. They need to invested in the vision of the new.

Getting a Steer

So who would be part of that team….

Matthew Wilson, Prêt, the team for re-design Pret

Designers (of course! We are the most fun ones in the room). Creative people. Marketing. Shop Team members.

Very often people forget about those on the floor. They are the public face of your brand. Its important to get their input.

But, most importantly…The Operators. These guys are on the battle front of your business. I learn more about a business from these guys than any other discipline…

Matthew Wilson, Prêt, Retain their DNA

Clearly understand your DNA

Understanding your key ingredients whilst at the same time and tweaking the recipe to taste. It is important that you do not discard what is not broken. Build on your strengths and to an extent discard your weaknesses.

Great customer service delivered by wonderful, friendly staff

Delicious food made on the premises using the best ingredients

Fast and efficient service. It’s the bit that outs Pret a cut above the rest. Those that have experienced Pret will recognise the DNA. It’s in the shops everyday.

Core Offering

Recognise your core offering and commit to it always. Build around your strengths rather than starting with your weaknesses. This is true of all brands.

We wanted to ensure that Pret’s commitment to its mission statement was a permanent pledge to its customers. Its what gives the brand strength.

Carved into wood, engraved in metal and painted on the walls. Like the true origin of a ‘brand’. Not on the back of a cow, but an indelible mark that is not easily removed. A true commitment to the customer.

I liked the idea that its not a piece of marketing that could disappear over night and be replaced with the ‘next offer’.

Every part of the environment had to reflect the offering. Clean, clear and crisp.

The Concept (re-spinning the wheel)

When considering the design we always had to ensure that we kept one thing at the forefront of our minds. We must NOT break the operations of the shops.

But we also wanted to lift the experience. There seems to be an expectation that the more we pay the more we expect from the environment.

So I was extremely lucky. My first task was to take on the image and not the operations.

And finally after many months of sleepless nights we transformed Pret from this:

Matthew Wilson, Prêt, Redesign 1

And over time and a few concept shops later we got to this:

Matthew Wilson, Prêt, Redesign 2

Welcoming, contemporary, but classic. Indicative of fresh but with a sense of warmth.

However we did not detract from the speedy service. Placing the products, like in any retail environment in the correct place and accessibility is vital to the success.

Any innovation should only enhance the service and not hinder it.

Look at very part of your operations and consider where design can help. From layout to bespoke units, design innovation can help your business. Don’t make the mistake that design is secondary to your offer. It’s an intrinsic part of your business. Look at round you now. Every element of your experience is designed from the moment you came through the door.

Don’t ever stop and think you have cracked it! The need to evolve is essential to brand refreshment.

Regional & Evenings (Learnings)

1. You have to acknowledge that not all regions and day parts work the same.

  1. Acknowledge the change required in environment. Why is it when you enter a space you immediately decide where this is the place for you or not? It both a sub-conscious and conscious decision.
  2. Flexing your environment to suit the consumer is key. Round tables may be better than long communal tables. Lounge chairs suit a coffee morning but not a lunch time rush…its there for you to explore.
  3. Lighting, décor, atmosphere, offering and people all make for a perfect recipe if you get it correct!
  4. Also, don’t ignore your learning’s. The Coffee aesthetic and messaging made its way into the main UK estate and helped raise the awareness of great Coffee in the city shops.
Matthew Wilson, Prêt, Shanghai store
Pret store in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China.

When we completed the [Shanghai] project and we proudly stood there in the shop a senior stakeholder asked me what was my favourite part of the shop. I think he was expecting me to say the floor, the finishes the lighting….I took him into the kitchen where we were greeted by the team smiling and waving. ‘There’…. ‘That’s the favourite part of my shop…the people’

They really are the most important ingredient.

Designers just set the stage.

The exportation of culture and embracing the culture you need to work with in is the most important ingredient.

So What Conclusion

Three things that I would say are the most important ingredients for any brand to succeed.

(Don’t deviate from your core offer)

(Learning can go in more than one direction. No one likes a dictatorship!)

(Do not underestimate the power of the people in your organisation. As designers, we set the stage for the main players. They are your brand team and your heart and soul.)

Thank you.

Matthew Wilson, speaking at Cine Europe 2016
Matthew Wilson, speaking at Cine Europe 2016

The presentation was followed by a Questions & Answers session with Matthew and Coca-Cola’s Corinne Thibaut on stage. Questions were from the audience unless otherwise indicated.

Question: [Question about speed of service.]

Matthew Wilson: Focus on key operations. I can write any aesthetic around any objective. But don’t break your key objectives.

Question: How do you manage subjectivity of design?

Matthew Wilson: You can only partially manage it. Designers have the hardest job in business, because everyone thinks that they can do our job. You have to get buy-in. Trust is another thing. I have never worked for such passionate people as Pret.

Question: How do you gain trust in an organisation?

Matthew Wilson: Time. Spending lots of time. Open it up to the floor.  Share your thought process. We are not alchemists. It does not completely come out of nowhere.

Question: You talked about consumer expectation. How does that translate in cinema?

Matthew Wilson: I always feel unloved when I go into the cinema. I’m attracted in by the light like a moth but then thrown out in a some back alley. Compare it to F&B. You want to feel loved for that period. If cinemas can put its arm around consumers for the whole experience then it is a winner. There is an independent cinema where I’ve been three times but never seen a film. Would you dare to go to a cinema and never see a film?

Corinne Thibaut: As long as it drives revenue.

Question:  Someone asks a question about brand ethics and how to tackle then in a cinema environment.

Matthew Wilson: Ethics are at the core of the business. Leftover food [at Pret] is given to homeless. It really invests in its people. If you have ethics, display them, build around them. If you don’t have them, find them. Brands should be looking at their ethics. And talk about it, but in a way that people can engage. Proactive ethics,, not reactive ethics. Sometimes it is nice to get to know a person and know what they are doing. You have to make sure that ethic is there.

Corinne Thibaut: Cinemas have to welcome very different audiences, children in morning, adults in the evening. How do you make environment welcoming for all?

Matthew Wilson: Challenge [at Pret] was similar. If I could have restaurant with rotating floor it would be best. Through design an environment you need 180 degree rotating floor. Lighting was a massive player. We had tables on wheels that could be rolled away and back. Where we work on day parts in F&B, maybe cinemas need to look at their offerings being weekly. It is difficult, but can be achieved.

Corinne Thibaut: Challenge of cinema industry is that you can survive for two hours without food and drink. How do make it irresistible? How do you drive the temptation?

Matthew Wilson: It is the experience of going and getting the hot dog – it kills me. After five minutes of trying to push through I just give up. Put a few more people out there, get better layout of tills. I challenge environments.

Corinne Thibaut: I never wait in line at Pret.

Matthew Wilson: Know how in Pret they shout, “who wants a coffee”? Even if you are six people back in line. Have an FO – front of line officer who can direct people. Working on front of houses.

Corinne Thibaut: And working in teams.

Matthew Wilson: The whole of head office goes to the shops for two weeks per year. You go into your cinemas and check what is working. The founder of Pret he goes into the shops and he knows the names of everybody. I’m seeing what need mending. It is a business that really builds itself on people. It is not a script, it is just the environment. In China in the kitchen everyone was smiling.

Matthew and Corinne at Cine Europe 2016
Matthew and Corinne at Cine Europe 2016

Question: The staff at Pret, how do they start and how do they train there?

Matthew Wilson: I don’t work in staffing, but everybody goes in at a live playing field. We all know we have a part to play but everybody is treated equally. I have a hard time to put my finger on what is special at Pret. You feel like a family.

Corinne Thibaut: People are your competitive advantage.

Matthew Wilson: We are all proud of our logo, but it is people that make that brand. As designers we just set the stage for other actors. Nobody should noticing the ceiling or the lights but enjoy the environment.

CorinneThibaut: How do you do that I hear you have parties for the staff?

Matthew Wilson: There are some famous Pret parties. Once a year we had the 02 rented for every single member. Previously we had Friday Night Drinks. But it is done in a way, not to capture people, but it being inclusive and a family. You do have to do some work in-between

Question: How do you work with consumer feedback?

Matthew Wilson: They are part of the same family. They are the cousins. F&B people are regular, they are an aunt or an uncle. Engage with them. A lot of companies think it is about social media. But nothing better then asking somebody over a coffe of how they are. Obviously, everybody does consumer research.

Corinne Thibaut: So many have loyalty programmes, but Pret has no loyalty programme.

Matthew Wilson: Loyalty is giving somebody great service and great people. It is like having a friend who has great parties. People are intrinsically loyal. If you go in somewhere and have a bad experience, you say, you are not going back there, then you tell your friends. Bad word spreads faster than good. If you look for bad news you can always find it.

Corinne Thibaut: But Pret has a feedback card.

Matthew Wilson: Yes, you have open access. Those open cards are wonderful. In Asia I had 400 emails per day. But that one little card, you have to find a pen and think things through. I’ve had cards “Have you thought off…” and I’ve had shops redesigned as a result of an idea. Some guy complained that we took away his favourite chair. So we had it reinstalled.

Corinne Thibaut: And the Pret CEO has his own blog where he takes ideas.

Matthew Wilson: Now we have whole departments dealing with Twitter and I wonder who the individual is that is replying. It is rare that you have CEO who replies to customers. If you have a guy like that running the business, who wouldn’t everybody emulate that.

Question: What we need is bigger screens and better image and not just screens at back of concessions. How many transaction can you do in a day?

Matthew Wilson: Can’t talk about it I’m afraid.

Question: How many tills do you have? This is public information. We work in cycles of 20 minutes. It is beautiful but it is not the same for Pret as it is in the cinema.

Corinne Thibaut: Your business is completely different. But it makes sense to explore what other businesses are doing. How they are addressing challenges.

Matthew Wilson: I was asked to share experiences that maybe you can take. I send out my team on non-food and beverage days. I send them to fashion retail and cinemas to see what they can learn. Would it be deployment of tills? Is it the layout? Do you want to change from 30% to 50% conversion, then it is about retail environment and atmosphere. I used to work in luxury fashion and I need to bring some of that into cinema. I worked in Asia. Have you ever tried to build luxury fashion in a third world country where things are delivered on bullock carts? Concentrate on your core offering. I’ve never learned form going to one food business to another to another. And I didn’t learnt that way. Do something completely different and learn from that.

Monica Datta: To what extent do you think it is the tone, the culture, the CEO inspired that?

Matthew Wilson: It is someone with a vision and it trickles through. He knows the names of everyone in the shops. I challenge most CEOs to know the names of people in the next department. Setting the tone at the top it comes down as a waterfall and it is refreshing. You take that to your team, they take it to others and they take it to their suppliers, they take it to the guy who picks the coffee.

Julian was one of the first people I spoke to and I got what his vision was, he took his time and we clicked.

And with that the session ended on a high note and hopefully inspiration for the cinema managers in the auditorium.

CJ + Partners is Celluloid Junkie’s collaboration with trusted and respected cinema industry partners where we help showcase products, services and stories that are of interest to our readership and the wider cinema community.

Patrick von Sychowski
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