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Caribbean Bottling Yet To ‘Dent’ 15-18% Sales Gap

• Coca-Cola distributor ‘plateaus’ on bridging pre-COVID divide

• ‘Unable to predict’ back at pre-pandemic levels come 2022

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Caribbean Bottling’s president yesterday said it has yet to “materially dent” the 15-18 percent gap with pre-COVID sales levels as he voiced doubts that the divide will close in 2022.

Walter Wells told Tribune Business that high unemployment, and consumers “struggling to make ends meet”, were likely a big factor impacting sales than restaurant restrictions and lower hotel occupancies as he revealed that the Coca-Cola distributor has brought back all staff “who wanted to come back”.

“We are consistently doing better than we did in the COVID months of last year,” he revealed. “October 2021 is better than October 2020, but we are still around 15-18 percent off 2019.

“We seem to have plateaued. We’re consistently better than 2020 because there was a lot of uncertainty then, what with the curfew and concerns over how late production could stay open for and how long stores could stay open.

“The improved curfew situation has made our job a lot easier. We’re consistently better but have not made a material dent yet in the difference between 2019 and 2021. I cannot say at the current rate we will back to 2019 levels in six months. I can’t predict that based on the progress I’m seeing today.”

Besides the 50 percent capacity limit on restaurant indoor dining and other restrictions affecting a key Caribbean Bottling customer, Mr Wells attributed the failure to fully recover pre-COVID sales levels on the tourism industry’s continued recovery.

“The ones that are open have low occupancies,” he added. “Atlantis does not have all its sites open. Baha Mar is open but occupancies are certainly not in the 70-80 percent range like pre-pandemic.

“And let’s not ignore the elephant in the room; significant unemployment levels. People don’t have money to buy stuff too. That’s probably more of a constraint than the hotels. People are still struggling to make ends meet. It’s going to take a while for the system to absorb all those bodies and that level of unemployment.”

Mr Wells voiced particular concern for Bahamians who were both unvaccinated and unemployed, questioning how they will find jobs when employers are now insisting that all new hires be fully inoculated against COVID-19. “What’s going to happen to them?” he asked. “I believe it will all work its way out.”

Caribbean Bottling has recalled all staff from furlough, Mr Wells said, although the pre-pandemic workforce of around 235 to 240 persons is down to around 210 after some staff on furlough found employment elsewhere, opted to take early retirement or moved to start their own businesses.

“We’ve probably heard every reason in the world,” he said of staff departures. “As we’re selling less we don’t need as many bodies.” And Mr Wells reiterated his belief that full COVID-19 recovery may not fully materialise in 2022.

“Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but while I’m hearing snippets of tourism in December being ahead of 2019, we may see pockets of that in 2022 but to say consistently - and I don’t think my crystal ball is better than yours - I don’t think that we will back to full steam from a tourism perspective, and tourism drives the economy and everything else,” he said.

“It hope it is. It would be good for the economy and we need every red cent we can get, but I don’t think we can be overly optimistic. We’re going to hire people as circumstances warrant us hiring people. I think it’s going to be a slow, steady improvement.”

While Sandals has recently sought 300 recruits for its two Bahamian properties, Mr Wells said this was offset by the continued Melia and Club Med closures as well as the unresolved fate of Freeport’s Grand Lucayan property.

“There’s a number of things we need to see happen to be back to what we consider normal,” he added. “It is very, very tough. The misery factor in the country is still very high. With the state of the economy it’s really all hands on deck at the moment. We have to be mindful that the economy is struggling right now, and we have to support local industries and businesses.

“Anything we outsource we try to outsource locally, and we only go outside when we have no choice in the matter. All businesses need to do that. There’s still too much bureaucracy in the system to get things done.”

Mr Wells said Caribbean Bottling had managed to avoid any major impact from the global supply chain crisis. “We’ve had a couple of close calls with various little things but have managed to come through unscathed,” he explained.

“The reason for that is because we are an isolated state in the middle of the ocean, we try to avoid just in-time purchasing. In terms of raw materials we have two-three months’ supply on hand so if there is disruption we are not out of pocket in two weeks’ because the boat did not come. Because of that we have not really been negatively impacted.”

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