Pub operator Greene King has a new online ordering system to make life easier for its landlords. Ross Bentley reports on how it works
Real ale and technology are subjects not normally mentioned in the same breath, but Greene King is determined to change that. The pub operator recently introduced an online ordering system and messaging tool designed to support its tenanted and leased partners in the effective running of its businesses.
The online ordering system - through which everything from beer and food to benches and heaters can be ordered - was made available to 20 pubs on a trial basis last Christmas. Following a successful pilot, it is now being rolled out to a further 500 licensees who have requested the service.
According to Sue Thomas-Taylor - commercial director of Greene King Pub Partners, the part of the business that looks after tenanted and leased pubs - the main advantage of the online ordering service is that it allows licensees to place their orders at a time that suits them.
Traditionally, landlords had to order over the phone via telesales operatives who worked only in normal office hours. Many found this inconvenient, as it meant they had to take time out from running a busy pub to go through what could sometimes be a lengthy process.
"Because of the irregular hours licensees work," Thomas-Taylor says, "we felt that restricting the ordering activity to a 9-5 window, when telesales are open, was a barrier to the smooth running of their pubs."
With the introduction of the new online ordering system, licensees can now complete their order at a time which suits them, she adds. And if they don't complete their list in one go, they can save it and return at a convenient time.
"They can also make last-minute additions," she says. "If, for example, they are clearing up at the end of the night and they find they are putting the final bottle of Bells on the optic."
Other functionality offered by the system includes a "favourites list" of items that are ordered regularly, and the ability to see a running total as items are added, to help with budgeting.
Thomas-Taylor insists that the system has not been installed with a view to eventually replacing the telesales operation. All establishments ordering online still receive a call to check that everything is in order with their requisition. "And," she adds, "even two or three years down the line, when the system is established, we still intend to have telesales to keep in touch with landlords, or for those who would rather order by phone."
The online ordering system is accessed through Greene King's Pubpartners.net extranet - an online information resource available to all of the company's 1,400-plus tenanted and leased pubs. Here, the company posts useful information, such as what pubs should do to comply with the recent smoking ban, and offers menu and wine list guidance, sales and marketing updates, and personalised weekly sales reports.
An additional service added recently allows pubs running an event - such as a pub quiz or a fancy dress night - to order their promotional posters online. Landlords can choose from a range of designs, and type in the wording they require. These are printed out professionally and delivered to the pub within a few days.
The second recent innovation, Greene King's messaging system, is also accessible through Pubpartners.net and, Thomas-Taylor says, is changing the way Greene King communicates with its licensees.
The new service is, in fact, a private internal e-mail system that allows communication between pub and head office. It allows Greene King to increase the amount of information and services it sends over e-mail, by ensuring that landlords have a reliable, uncluttered inbox.
"A lot already had e-mail addresses, such as Hotmail, but they were clogged up with spam," Thomas-Taylor says.
Being touted as a more environmentally friendly and efficient way of corresponding - cutting down on paper use and the vagaries of the postal service - the private e-mail system will be used to send out special promotions, business updates and, increasingly, weekly invoices.
Of course, landlords need to own a computer and have an internet connection to access these services, but with broadband services now affordable for most users, the great majority of Greene King's landlords are already online. The company has also set up a deal with retailer PC World that permits its licensees to buy IT equipment at preferential rates.
Thomas-Taylor says that the company will make support available for any landlord who is struggling with the technology, but says that she does not anticipate many of them having problems.
"Most landlords have to print out menus or letters, so they already possess a basic knowledge of using a PC," she says. "And if they've ever bought something from Amazon, or ordered through the Tesco website, they'll find using our new service straightforward."
Case study: The queen's larder
Susan Bowler, the landlady at the Queen's Larder pub in central London, says Greene King's online ordering system allows her to manage her time more efficiently. "Previously, I would have to wait around for someone to call me," she says.
Another advantage of the new system, according to Bowler, who was one of the first people to trial the system in November, is that she is able to see immediately how much she is spending on each order. "It gives me my costings straight away, rather than my having to wait a few days for the invoice to come through the post," she explains.
With the pub having what Bowler describes as "a high-quality clientele", a good wine list is essential and she says that she has found the guidance given on the Pubpartners.net extranet to be very helpful.
And if she has any queries - whether about items that are out of stock or new products - she says that she now sends an e-mail in the knowledge that her query will be dealt with soon.
Case study: Saint bride's tavern
The ease of use of Greene King's online ordering system is emphasised by David Perkins (above), the landlord at Saint Bride's Tavern in London's City.
He started ordering stock online in February and has had no problems in getting to grips with the system. "I'd always used the internet, and it's like most websites you come across," he says. "Once you've used it a few times, it's fairly simple."
A traditional-style pub on two floors that serves food at lunchtime and in the evenings, the Blackfriars establishment has one of its busiest times on Friday lunchtime. But Perkins often found himself tied up on the phone, reading out his order to Greene King operatives mid-morning on Friday. However, he says: "With the new system, I can do my ordering when it's convenient for me, usually around one o'clock in the morning."
Perkins says that the online services offered by Greene King also allow him to do stock research more easily. With new menu items, the online reports allow him to see how that product is selling - a statistic that helps him shape his next order.
And he still gets a call from head office just to check that his order has come through all right. "But this time," he says, "the call only lasts a maximum of a minute."