Retail Betting

FSB’s Richard Thorp: Retail Betting – The Past and Future

Last I checked, signs of impending apocalypse have yet to include high street bookmakers’ signs flapping in the wind. However, if you were to listen to many on the retail high street, the four horsemen are bearing down on retail operators – and at least one of them is riding a FOBT, writes Richard ThorpBusiness Development Director for FSB.

First, the gritty reality: there can be no debate that over-the-counter betting has a problem. Fixed odds betting terminals had been driving the majority share of revenue within the retailers.

But now, following the UK government’s decision earlier this year to slash the maximum bet on FOBTs from £100 to £2, these machines can no longer sustain retail outlets’ viability by taking the edge off clear consumer trends.

The pattern for customers moving online, of course, is part of a deeper commercial tide that is only rolling one way. And the high street entry point is becoming more and more unappealing for operators, established or otherwise.

Only last week House of Fraser cited “greedy landlords” in its own battle to keep its outlets alive. And while neither Mike Ashley nor bookmakers typically cut sympathetic figures, the current spate of shop closures is costing thousands of jobs.

Consider a variety of business rates, the cost of streaming pictures to screens on a range of sports and you’re several grand down before you even open your doors. Simply put, it just doesn’t add up without taking a huge trading risk.

These barriers to entry are more roadblock than speed bump for most. The affiliate argument, whereby operators use their stores to redirect traffic online, seems to carry less and less weight while staff are progressively unskilled in betting knowledge and their robotic equivalents, the copycat self-service betting terminals, have all the handling and UX performance of a clapped-out Reliant Robin.

Would it help if we got out and pushed? Well, in a perfect storm of too many suppliers in the market and shops shutting left, right and centre, it’s a question of knowing where to put your shoulder to the wheel. Ultimately, the challenge is to create a beneficial experience for people to walk through the betting shop doorway. Or in other words, to fashion a product you couldn’t get anywhere else.

Ireland is something of a retail success story, in that many shops remain integral parts of the community, helped by educated staff who are encouraged to interact with their customers and understand their needs. There are no FOBTs in the Republic of Ireland, of course, so there’s no palpable sense of loss there, nor a negative stereotype that betting outlets are becoming the domain of the uncouth youth, lining up to hammer a terminal.

Regardless, it naturally takes a whole lot more than a friendly chat with a shop manager over tea and biscuits to reboot a franchise. The first 50 years of betting shops served their purpose, but things started to go awry from 1995 – 2000, when their collective failure to evolve with the either technology or the cultural zeitgeist left them looking like anachronisms living on borrowed time.

Accordingly, just over a decade ago, I became involved with a remodel of the betting shop environment, launching Better Bet across the South East of England with a view to improving the customer experience. In a triumph for bad timing, we fell short. I’d even previously grappled with the launch of the SSBT prototype at Blue Square’s lone betting shop on the Edgware Road in 2004!

But the online movement was so powerful and shop hardware simply wasn’t in a place where it could respond by linking up – especially to advances in mobile, which were even instructing grey-pound punters. That future, however, has now finally arrived. And since joining FSB, our development team of traders and engineers has worked tirelessly to reinvigorate this arena with a provable omnichannel solution.

Indeed, FSB’s new fleet of state-of-the-art SSBTs, which operate off a fully functional sleek-screen interface, now provide the sought-after product for customers who want to enjoy the traditional benefits of betting shop anonymity, allied to the wider sports offering available to online sports-betting punters.

We have designed a digital interface within a retail environment with all the attractions that that acquire, engage and retain the end user. With assured settlement and return-to-player payouts, money also seamlessly redirects within betting shops, combating money-laundering concerns.

The imperative to continue improving existing products and develop new technologies aimed at digitising the retail space is part of our modus operandi. A one-size-fits-all approach becomes untenable when a linked-up, customisable approach is now on hand to create the proverbial one-stop shop. Indeed, FSB’s core backend powers digital and retail simultaneously – across sportsbook and casino – providing management efficiency for operators and a unified experience for customers.

In fact, retail operators have been flocking to our toolkit this year, since our next-generation SSBTs uniquely manage the display of content in-venue via one intuitive screen, connecting through to EPOS terminals, and a single wallet / account. Thereby building this bridge to the ultimate digital customer experience.

Make no mistake, then, betting shops can begin to regain their status as engaging congregation points for the community, helping address footfall concerns across our nation’s embattled high streets. People regularly go to mall and food-halls for communal experiences.

If the dials are set correctly, retail outlets can serve a similar purpose, leveraging the bonding power of sport, and adding a dash of excitement with responsible betting for those so inclined. After all, the land-based casino model still works well for bringing everyone together. If only betting shops were able to sell alcohol!

Needless to relate, government both local and national will have telling things to say on such legislative matters, alongside the aforementioned issues around sky-high rents. In all likelihood, Philip Hammond’s autumn budget isn’t going to deliver a silver bullet in November.

Yet this is not the time to mourn the death of the FOBT and its ripple effect in the retail world. Instead, we should embrace the transformative tools now at our disposal and usher in a golden era for the betting shop, even if that means there are fewer of them nationwide.

On the surface, would you walk into an amusement arcade which only had four identical amusements? For all their controversial appeal, FOBTs have essentially been turning high street betting shops into disengaged mini-casinos, when these venues should and do have so much more to offer.

It’s always worth remembering that we’re in the entertainment business here. And when it stops being fun, people generally look elsewhere. So I feel certain that there’s still life in the old shop yet, as long as the aforementioned innovation and renovation arrive. In short, diversify or die. It’s not a new axiom. But it is a reliable one.

At the very least it would make a welcome break from the current retail demand for a Starbucks or a Gap on every high street. Forget the four horsemen, that really would be a sure sign of Armageddon for me!

FSB will be at Stand Q14 throughout Betting on Sports. FSB’s new 8,000 sq ft Shoreditch offices now include a product-development floor which features a fully functional betting shop, complete with FSB’s latest self-service betting terminals. Contact Richard to arrange an appointment or request a brochure.