They’ve been a fixture of the Great British high street since the 1960s.
But times are hard for the humble bricks and mortar bookmakers these days, and for reasons largely beyond their control things are not getting any easier any time soon.
Tighter legal restrictions and the boom in online betting has left bookies with a black hole in their profit and loss accounts, and widespread shop closures have been a necessary fallout from the struggle.
So is this the end of the high street betting shop, or can bookmakers swim against the tide and turn things around?
FOBTs – End of the Beginning or the Beginning of the End?
For decades, the bookmaking industry enjoyed a boom time with almost no restrictions.
Harold MacMillan legalised high street betting as a way of creating tax revenue in the early 1960s, and punters took to them with gusto – within six months, more than 10,000 bookmakers’ shops could be found in the towns and cities of England, Scotland and Wales.
Opportunities for growth have come and some have gone, but it was a change in the rules of how Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) were governed that sounded another death knell for the industry.
First established in 2001, FOBTs are those games machines that you see in betting shops that feature quickfire games like roulette and slots.
For the best part of two decades, the maximum stake per game was set at £100 – but this was a source of consternation for many, who believed that the ‘easy come, easy go’ stylings of the machines were causing problem gambling behaviours to thrive.
So, in 2018, the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport decided to cut the maximum stake to £2 – fixing one problem, but creating another.
Soon after the implementation of the new rules in 2019, the betting industry was sounding the alarm bell. More than 1,000 betting shops were closed permanently within six months of the decision being made, and the overall figure since then is believed to be somewhere closer to the 2,000 mark, which represents roughly a quarter of the entire high street sector.
William Hill has been one of the worst hit firms, shutting around 700 shops, and that has put paid to the jobs of thousands of their employees – many of whom have struggled to find new work amid the tough economic climate.
The news does not get any brighter either. With betting shops closed for most of 2020, betting brands were forced to make more difficult decisions – Coral and Ladbrokes shut a further 300 shops in 2021.
The State of Play: Numbers Steadily Decline
At the last rollcall of betting shops taken in 2020, there were just 7,681 premises left in the UK – less than those that opened in the first six months of legalisation all those years ago.
Indeed, the year-on-year stats for the last decade or so are alarming for high street bookies:
|Year||No. of shops in the UK|
As recently as 2014, high street bookmaking was thriving – new shops were being opened up despite the lurking threat of online betting.
The major decline coincides with the announcement of the FOBT stake cut, and 2020 really was something of a disaster – since 2011, around 15% of betting shops have been lost permanently.
The Threat of Online Betting
The perils that have befallen the industry of late – both regulatory and economic – could not be foreseen, and are beyond the control of the humble high street bookmaker.
But the dangers of the internet? Nobody could say they didn’t see those coming.
The absolute vast majority of betting firms have, naturally, created their own online presence – some excellently well, others less so.
The upshot is an extraordinary set of statistics – in the UK alone, there are 30 million active online betting accounts which house a collective balance of nearly £1 billion.
And the gross gambling yield of online betting in the UK is £5.7 billion, as of 2020. For high street betting and ‘other’ sources, that GGY is down at £2.4 billion.
The conclusion is pretty obvious, then. Money is flowing from the high street into online sources, and betting shops – like any other retailer for that matter – have to find workable solutions before it’s too late and they’re lost for good.
To the Future
It goes without saying that the internet isn’t going anywhere soon, and so assuming that sector continues to thrive, then high street betting shops have to find a use case.
What can the bookies offer in person that they can’t online?
The American sportsbook model is interesting. They focus on service and entertainment, with staff taking bets from patrons at their table in a bar or restaurant style environment. Could gastro-bookies be the way forward?
One option for betting brands is to reduce the overheads of their high street shops, and that might mean the replacement of staff with touchscreen terminals – many shops already have these. Following the lead of supermarkets and banks, a person-less experience can be a soul-less one – but it does save money in the long run.
Is there a way that high street firms and online services can somehow be combined? Coral have tried it with their Connect card scheme, and you wonder if this could be an avenue that more go down as they seek to make bookies’ shops relevant with a younger audience.
Fred Done, Betfred’s founder and owner, might have hit on an idea. He thinks that betting firms should embrace the e-sports revolution more openly, hosting in-shop competitions with prize money and the like. It would certainly increase footfall with a younger demographic, but can they be converted into regular, consistent punters?
There is no silver bullet for high street betting shops, unfortunately, and it has to be said the future does look perilously bleak for yet another industry savaged by the convenience of apps and internet connections.