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JD Wetherspoon suffers as UK rail strikes hit pub sales

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A Wetherspoon's logo is seen at a pub in central London

By Radhika Anilkumar

(Reuters) - British pubs group JD Wetherspoon said its like-for-like sales had slipped back below pre-pandemic levels in the last 12 weeks, although it remained "cautiously optimistic" on the year.

The impact of rail strikes dented sales hopes for Britain's hospitality sector in its first Christmas season without COVID-19 restrictions in three years.

"Strikes had a negative impact, although it is difficult to quantify," Weatherspoon Chairman Tim Martin told Reuters.

Wetherspoon also noted that costs were far higher than three years ago, especially labour, food, energy and maintenance. The pub chain, often referred to simply as "Spoons" by its younger customers, is priced lower than others in Britain.

Like-for-like sales in the 25 weeks to Jan. 22, roughly its first half, were down 0.7% on pre-pandemic levels.

A positive result in the 14 weeks to Nov. 3 was wiped out by a 2% drop in recent weeks, underscoring the hit to trading during the traditionally strong festive season.

However, like-for-like sales were up 13.1% year-on-year, reflecting the hit which the Omicron variant of COVID-19 had on eating and drinking out at the end of 2021.

"Given the multiple hits consumers are having to their spending power, it may be some time before genuine sales growth returns," Hargreaves Lansdown analyst Derren Nathan said.

Shares of FTSE MidCap constituent Wetherspoon, which has more than 900 pubs and hotels across Britain and Ireland, were down 2.7% at 1148 GMT, while the index was down 0.07%.

Pub chains Fuller Smith & Turner and Revolution Bars Group this month warned on profit after the rail strikes dented their holiday sales.

Last year's soccer World Cup, usually a crowd-puller for pubs in Britain, had a 'neutral' impact on Wetherspoon, which does not count itself as a sports bar, Martin added.

"As the clouds continue to darken for the hospitality sector, it may be a case of last man standing. Wetherspoon will in our opinion no doubt survive," Nathan added in a note.

(Reporting by Radhika Anilkumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Janane Venkatraman and Alexander Smith)