A couple of decades ago, it was common to find pretty much every single high street with at least one betting shop operating on it. Their popularity was unmatched for many years, with people looking to enter into their chosen bookmaker store on a frequent enough basis to place their favourite bets. However, in the past decade, things have started to change for that sector. Retail outlets aren’t as popular as they once were.
Naturally, the dawn of online sports betting and casino gaming has had quite a large effect on this. More people are choosing to play their favourite games and place their preferred bets from their home computer or from a mobile device. With fewer players entering into those retail outlets, it’s only natural to consider that those betting shops will be replaced by something else in due course.
Many of those shops have already closed their doors for good. In fact, it was only in August of 2020 that William Hill announced it would be shutting 119 of its land-based betting shops. The effects of COVID-19 paired with pre-pandemic declines in attendance figures have had a devastating impact on the company. However, even though trading was reported to have recovered well following the UK’s first lockdown, William Hill said that it didn’t expect customers to return in the numbers seen prior to the virus hitting. And this is likely to be the case for many other companies in the near future.
What is likely to replace these betting shops? Is there anything that would be able to survive the global pandemic and declining visitor figures? The retail shop sector has found itself being pushed aside for online shopping in many instances, so could anything really take over that stands the chance of existing for a long time? Or will we be seeing these betting shop lots remain empty for the duration, thereby decimating the high streets further?
Could Staff-Less Betting Shops Be the Answer?
Obviously, a part of the retail betting shops is to have employees serving customers. This also means that wages need to be paid to these people, and if a company possess hundreds of stores, that’s a large outgoing chunk of money each year. A suggestion has also been put forward for these stores to continue running but without staff. In this situation, would it become less of a social space for punters to enter? What exactly would the added advantage be in this circumstance?
Various shops already incorporate self-service betting terminals, allowing bettors to place their own bets without needing to utilise the assistance of an employee. And while staff-less betting shops have not come into effect as of yet, small-scale trials have been suggested to see how they would work.
Of course, social interaction is something else that these high street stores have provided over the years. It remains as an integral part of the experience for many punters, too. And for some people, this does extend to the staff members at the retail store, who they may have known for several years from visiting the bookies frequently enough to get to know. Some of those employees may have worked in that position for multiple years and decades.
Of course, it’s cheaper for operators to remain active online, so why would they choose to adapt for the high street with staff-less stores? What is the advantage in doing this?
Some would argue that there is a number of advantages to continuing to operate retail stores. The social interaction that comes with it is just one of the perks to visiting a land-based store and receiving a trusted service from employees. As things stand at the moment too, there are various bettors who are from generations back who have very little interest in placing bets online. For these people, it is far easier to visit a store and do so.
The issue with staff-less betting shops though, is that there are obvious questions around safety and control in such environments. This is why it’s likely that retail stores would never go entirely staff-less but would reduce the number of employees significantly. And instead of staff members taking bets and so on, they would simply be there for any problems, assistance with betting terminals and other in-store technology, and of course, the social aspect of betting shops.
In the long-run though, the older generation of bettors will pass by and retail stores would likely find themselves in a similar situation or, more likely, a worse situation than they are now. Staff-less stores may be a solution for the short-term, but does it really mean they can continue at the same rate as they were before? Not likely.
Will The Retail Betting Sector Bounce Back?
It seems as though there have been predictions of doom for the retail betting sector since the UK legalised and regulated such outlets in 1961. Back in 1966, the betting tax was introduced (before being repealed and replaced with the gross profits tax), and several decades later, the online and mobile betting sectors were introduced, while in much more recent times, the maximum bet on FOBTs was reduced. Enforced change is generally never far away from the betting industry.
Seemingly, the government enjoys throwing a spanner in the works whenever bookies become too profitable or seem to be failing when it comes to social responsibilities. Of course, there is nothing that can be done with regard to a worldwide pandemic hitting the country’s shores. However, the industry has survived through all those changes and problems. And while it may not have been at the prevalence level as it was during its peak time, it has remained in a healthy enough position.
Of course, every retail business operating on the high street has had to do combat against a growing online sector. Banks, toy stores, clothing department stores and more have shut up shop as a result, leaving empty stores behind in their wake. Meanwhile, the bigger, more adaptable companies continue to grow in the void left by these brands.
Some have actually suggested that while the smaller names in the sports betting world will potentially get swallowed up by the growing online sector, the big names will grasp a hold of the retail sector and continue expanding. And while the total number of shops on the high streets in the UK may decrease during consolidation periods, some believe that the retail sector will continue to evolve so as to cater to change.
One theory put forward recently was that Ladbrokes was set to introduce betting cafes, where floor-walking staff would take bets from guests. This would see them grab a coffee and a bite to eat whilst placing their preferred sports bets inside. Of course, that’s quite the extreme, as not many people associate going out for a coffee with engaging in sports betting of any kind.
It is important to consider that betting shops do not just make money for bookmakers in themselves they also act as prominent adverts. The fact that people who rarely bet will still recognise names like William Hill and Ladbrokes shows that a high street presence is still important for operators to maintain their exposure. It is unlikely brands will give up all retail positions, especially those in the centre of towns where 1000’s of people will see the name daily, which in itself will help the online business through name recognition.
Technology-Based Retail Betting
Most operators based in the United Kingdom report these days that the majority of sports bets are actually now placed on the self-service terminals within. This differs to the over the counter process that was popular previously. However, even though this is the case, figures seem to suggest that there is still plenty of land-based business to grab with both hands.
Ireland is already operating the first of its staff-less betting shops, which were mentioned earlier. Despite this being on a small-scale (and plus, Ireland doesn’t have the FOBT situation), they are proving to be a lot more cost-efficient than standard betting offices with various staff working in them. The same is true of Australia, where in specialist betting shops and pubs, over 95% of the retail bets are placed through the self-service machines. Staff are only there to manage the venues themselves and the payouts.
A New Breath of Life for the High Street?
It’s been stated that the closure of land-based betting shops on the high streets could be a huge benefit to them, though. After William Hill announced the closure of 700 of its stores in 2019, analysis was undertaken by the Property Intelligence brand HARNESS. This analysis indicated that the closure of more betting shops could actually herald a new era for Britain’s high streets.
At the time, HARNESS had analysed around 4,000 betting shops in the countries of England and Wales between 2010 and 2017. According to the statistics, about 132 of these were closed and then re-opened under a new use class. Over one third of that number were re-opened as high street shops, which gave evidence that the closure of the 700 William Hill betting shops could pave the way for more new retailers to occupy the high streets once again.
Generally speaking, the logic surrounding this research is that when betting shops have closed their doors, replacements have come in the form of new shops or high street retailers for the most part. With the 700 closures by William Hill in 2019 (and more to be closed in 2020 and 2021), the evidence suggests that many of them could be re-opened as retail shops.
Now, it’s also true to say that this research and the resulting information gathered from it was conducted prior to the influx of COVID-19 lockdowns, tier restrictions and so on. Doubtless, this has had an effect on business in the vast majority of sectors, not solely betting shops. Yet, if sports betting and casino gaming is able to take place successfully in the online sphere, the closure of retail stores has some believing that more shops can come to the high street in their place. Whether or not this is actually a possibility remains to be seen. After all, coronavirus has left a lot of questions in its wake, and the answers to such are still floating about in the air rather than having any sort of solid foundation from which to come.
In fact, some counties have taken it upon themselves to question their local residents on what they would like to see their betting shops repurposed as. For example, in Cheltenham, a planning application was submitted to the borough council for a former William Hill betting shop to be converted from a bookies to a retail environment. However, nothing was revealed about exactly what it would become after a refurbishment of the premises. Unfortunately, whatever did go there (or was scheduled to) didn’t materialise in the end, and the property remains available to rent out.
Yet, with the fact that it exists in a prime location, near to companies like Iceland, Greggs, Pizza Hut and Car Factory, and that it also has a nearby pay and display car park at the rear, it has plenty to offer to any avid retailer.
Betting shops were said to be in a difficult situation prior to the pandemic hitting around the world. This cannot be solely to blame for any decisions to taken by operators to close their retail store doors. Of course, it will have had an additional impact, but outlets for sports betting have had to suffer through other things beforehand.
Whether or not the impact of various crackdowns united with COVID-19 implications will have a severe enough effect to close retail bookmakers down for good remains to be seen. Some suggest that they’ll ride the wave of destruction through it all successfully and evolve to adapt to that change. Others believe that they are doomed to fail, just as they have been doomed ever since betting shops were legalised. Retail stores in general have been hit hard by online activities and the fact that they’ve had to close down during the UK lockdowns. It’s questionable if any of these brands would want to take over a former betting shop site.
Whatever the case may be, the likelihood is that there will always be a call for sports betting opportunities. And if the retail betting sector does fade out in the end, the online industry is more than capable of picking up any sort of slack and loose ends.