The future for retail: Could ‘staff-less’ shops become a reality?

It is widely accepted that we are entering a new era for retail betting, ushered in by the fast-tracked fixed odds betting terminal (FOBT) legislation and an increased expectation of technology amongst customers – for so many of whom digital is now king.

Yet will this new era include the advent of ‘staff-less’ betting shops? Are bookmakers likely to respond to declining retail business by running shops without any need for human intervention?

This issue was raised by Howard Chisholm, who operates 38 shops mainly in the north-east of England, as part of his presentation on offsetting FOBT losses at last month’s Bookmakers Trade Fair.

He pointed to the “radical measures” introduced by BetXS for three shops in Ireland. All of the shop systems are controlled remotely, from doors and lights to security, CCTV and TV, while bets are placed and settled through self-service betting terminals (SSBTs) complete with a customer service terminal set up to deal with any problems.

In response, we asked three of the companies leading the retail revitalisation for sports betting – Playtech BGT Sports (PBS), Vermantia and OKTO – to outline their vision of the betting shop of the future. Could ‘staff-less’ shops really become a reality?

Lee Drabwell, Senior Commercial Director at PBS, said: “We’re entering a new era for retail betting, none more so than in the UK. The impact of FOBT legislation this year has sped up the long overdue revitalisation of the betting shop, and we expect to see an increasing focus by UK retail estates on improving the in-shop digital experience. 

“From self-service to initiatives to digital newspaper displays with the latest tips, there’s plenty in the pipeline when it comes to meeting retail customers’ increasing demands and expectations. 

“Key to retail’s revitalisation has been the emergence of the next generation of Self-Service Betting Terminals (SSBTs). Proven to offer the best in-play and pre-match betting experience around, SSBTs showcase the latest odds and visualisations in a way that vastly improves the choice and experience customers have compared to traditional over the counter (OTC) betting on football or other sports. 

“Combining data and live pictures with the digitised convenience of a modern SSBT is helping retail operators move with the times. Not only by appealing to a next generation of customers, but also by delivering incremental revenue. This is reflected by the continued impressive growth seen in SSBT business levels year after year, and we expect to see the same in 2020.  

“However, while the new generation of SSBTs brings with it the ability to offer a fully autonomous betting operation, I do not believe that fully ‘staff-less’ betting shops would (or should) become a reality anytime soon. Social responsibility should lay at the heart of the retail betting business and the invaluable part played by staff via intervention and interaction should not be underestimated. 

“Retail also attracts a diverse range of player types, who will continue to choose different ways to place bets. The role of self-service technology is to enable an easier, safer and more responsible betting experience in conjunction with traditional shop roles. 

“If retail is to compete for leisure spend during leaner times, it needs to be all about providing the widest choice of sporting events and markets. The betting shop of the future is set to serve a more diverse range of customers than ever before. 

“In my view, the social element of retail combined with thousands of betting opportunities at customers’ fingertips through SSBTs will be an experience that is hard to beat. We’re already seeing this in real time, with more and more customers preferring to study the form, choose their selection and place a bet stood in front of an interactive 22-inch SSBT rather than be restricted by the limitations of the traditional OTC betting journey.

“For now, it’s important to recognise that retail must adapt to ensure it remains a viable proposition in the years to come. Multi-channel strategies centred around SSBTs will be key, alongside improved customer interactions and environment, to ensure that the retail operator of the future stays ahead of the game.” 

Yiannis Gangas, CPO of Vermantia, added: “In an increasingly digitised world, engaging customers with exciting content and a tailored user experience on familiar cashless devices has never been more important. Retail is no exception. 

“We believe that blending the speed and efficiency of futuristic cashless SSBTs with the thrill of action-packed live sports and racing content is key to the future of retail betting. A new generation of customer wants their user experience to be as interactive, exciting and frictionless as possible, and a digital environment is central to that. 

“We’ve already seen the automated, ‘staff-less’ concept take off in other retail sectors, and there’s no reason why it can’t offer a convenient and enjoyable betting experience for tech-savvy punters. 

“However, I do not expect to see a staff-less betting environment across operators’ entire retail estates anytime soon. An intermediate shop with ‘less-staff’ is far more likely, with today’s betting experience needing to maintain a combination of both tech and human touch. 

“For many, the social interaction that comes with betting is also a key part of their enjoyment, and to remove it entirely would mean eliminating a big part of the customer demographic. 

“The technology is already there to remodel the retail customer journey as we know it, and we’re already seeing it deployed. Designed to offer a digital experience that presents the latest content, odds, data and betting promotions, operators now have the complete toolset required to deliver the betting shop of the future, covering both ‘staff-less’ and ‘less staff’ concepts. 

“The new era of retail is all about omni-channel and delivering a bespoke service to suit each betting environment. Our mission is to focus on bringing the best of digital into the retail space while catering to a diverse spectrum of customer preferences. 

“Everything from our powerful content management systems to live betting channels and cashless SSBTs are designed to attract a broader range of customers to operators’ shops than ever before.” 

Simon Dorsen, Director of Gaming at OKTO, commented: “In today’s fast-paced digital world, we’re seeing the expectations of tech change in just about every interaction we have. This is especially the case for betting in-shop, and those looking for a way to bring the best of digital into the retail space can find plenty of ways to enrich the retail environment.   

“We’re already seeing change happening in real-time, with many of the more forward-looking operators revamping and modernising their shops with a focus on the latest in customer experience.

“Plenty of suppliers have exciting plans in the pipeline, including tablet-based solutions that allow for the futuristic ‘Apple store’ self-service shop experience expected to becoming mainstream in 2020. 

“This digitised, in-store convenience is set to be a major part of retail’s future and cashless payments will be key to making this work. Payments technology will not only make the self-service experience fast and paperless, but also intelligent. As well as giving players the freedom to enjoy the experience more by making bets faster, it will also ensure that players receive bet notifications and their winnings fast and be ready to place another bet. 

“However, while combining payments technology with self-service betting solutions will certainly enable an automated retail environment, I doubt that we will see ‘staff-less’ betting shops as a blanket operation anytime soon. The next generation of betting is all about delivery across multiple channels, and no matter what alternative operators offer, many demographics will already be happy with their preferred channel. 

“Retail’s future success will be driven by focusing on providing a unique environment, stronger customer relationships, and an experience underpinned and enabled by digitisation. Automation should mean a stronger focus by staff on the ‘value-added’ delivery of customer services. 

“The key strength of retail is the personal interaction that comes with it, and operators need to find the right balance of automation by creating a highly personalised service with reduced staff levels. Get it right, and operators can use technology to reduce net costs and ensure higher betting turnover in peak times.”

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