Walk down any high-street in the UK and Ireland, and the chances of coming across a betting shop are very high – but it is no secret that the retail sector has been dealt some heavy blows over the past two years.
Consistent lockdown conditions throughout 2020 and 2021 have starved many betting shops of revenues, whilst the growing popularity of online betting prior to and in tandem with the shutdowns has further exacerbated matters.
Despite these concerns, Colm Finlay (Founder, BetXS), Howard Chisholm (Director, Bookmakers Technology Consortium) and Tim Kennedy (Vice President of Sales for Europe, Suzo Happ) maintained confidence in retail’s prospects at Betting on Sports Europe (BOSE).
Making an appearance on the ‘Innovation in the betting shop’ panel at the Twickenham Stadium event last week, Kennedy and Chisholm both focused on the community and social aspect of retail betting, pointing to how this could and will contribute to its continuation.
“The reason for people coming into the shops is the community aspect, talking to the staff and each other,” Chisholm noted. “The physicality of playing a gaming machine is so much more interactive than on your iPad. People come in for the contact.”
“We also have the SSBTs, and a lot of customers are transferring to those, not just younger customers but older ones are getting more tech savvy.”
However, as with many other high street shops, betting outlets continue to face a major operational hurdle in the aftermath of the pandemic – staffing.
To deal with this challenge, Finlay believed that he had the answer – staffless betting shops, which operate using automated technology ensuring that the lights, televisions and self-service terminals only function for a set time of the day.
This has enabled his regional chain in Ireland to cut operating costs down from €19,000 per month to just 1,800, although he added that he often hires one staff member per shop to ensure customer satisfaction with the technology used.
Finlay continued: “As you can imagine with a new concept like this some customers are going to come into the shop who for all of their life are familiar with counters, dockets, biro-holding staff who can facilitate them through the process of placing a bet.
“What I found with my shops was there were some customers coming in who out of fear of technology were becoming resistant to it, so whenever we opened a new shop we put in a labour unit to onboard as many customers as possible.”
BetXS’s focus so far has been on targeting small towns in rural areas in Ireland which firms usually would avoid due to operating costs exceeding – or at least substantially minimising – any revenue made.
The firm’s Founder did note that running this kind of retail operation requires strong technology proficiency, however, adding: “The first thing I’ll say about the terminals is when you have a staffless shop you need a relentless and squeaky clean platform. They just need to take bets, take bets, take bets.”
A major question mark hanging over the staffless concept revolves around, understandably, responsibility and compliance functions – how can age verification and self-exclusion be effectively carried out under these circumstances?
“We use facial rec on each of the over betting machines to undergo facial recognition,” Finlay detailed. “The betting shops will not give underlying access to the SSBT software unless the age checking cameras show they are over 21 – we set it at that to have a small margin of error.”
On the topic of social responsibility in the retail space, Kennedy observed that countries in continental Europe are moving ahead much faster than the UK.
“Europe is really gearing up to tackle social responsibility, probably before the UK does anything,” he asserted. “We’ve been working on some hardware solutions for an ID card and facial recognition system.
“Italy and both Spain are looking at that, where you have to confirm you are over a certain way or you get challenged by a member of staff.
“I also see a move towards more personalised terminals in some of those countries, like a personal EPOS system where you interact with the terminal and choose the content you want to say.”
Moving forward, Chisholm further noted that operating costs are also a major obstacle to the contemporary retail sector, particularly as costs of living rise across the board in general.
Media rights alone, he observed, cost betting shops around £1,000 each month before other costs are even considered – this is something that Finlay argued can be offset in small town venues by removing TV screens, as many punters will often head down to a local pub or back to their house to watch races and sports.
“Virtually every bookmaker in the UK following on from the gaming machine change has seen a large number of shops closed, because the payments for media rights were coming out of the gaming machines,” Chisholm added.
However, he still held reservations about staffless shops, stating: “The problem we have is that we couldn’t operate a staffless betting shop in the UK because we couldn’t provide all the services that we do.”
In particular, popular retail products such as virtual sports would be made obsolete, as wagers cannot be placed on these products via SSBT terminals.
In Chisholm’s view, customers are not ‘dying off’ – he pointed out that demographically, older males participate in retail betting as younger people don’t have as much spare money or time to play in betting shops, and this has been the case for decades.
“We should be getting younger people more involved in the social side of betting, but there is always a higher number of older customers in the betting shops,” he concluded.
“That said, the SSBTs are cracking at bringing in the younger element who have grown up with that mobile product.”
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