Last night’s first broadcast of the BBC three-part series ‘Britain at the Bookies’ explored the rise of the betting shop, what its customers want and the impact on the treasured UK high street. It comes as no surprise that broadcasters find the betting shop a juicy target. The common complaint from the Orkneys to Penzance is that bookmakers are taking over. Where independent shops with names like ‘Mrs Jewson’s jams and cakes’ and ‘Mr Harding’s homeware store’ once stood, now stand more Paddy Powers, Ladbrokes and William Hills than you could throw a 2-1 Grand National horse at.
And it’s all a result of our growing love of betting. According to recent statistics, we spend approximately £46 billion a year at bookmakers up and down the country. That’s roughly equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of Cost Rica or Serbia, all spent on betting. For the traditionalists: which four legged animal will move fastest, or which team can kick a ball that bit better than the other. But for the progressive: the growing popularity of the ‘novelty bet’ (akin to ancient prophecy), where we now predict the names of royal babies, Strictly Come Dancing winners and which jungle-bound celebrity will refuse to eat grubs.
It’s music to the ears of bookmakers. The two market leaders in UK retail bookmaking, Ladbrokes and William Hill continue to surpass expectations with each financial report. Ladbrokes wrote this of its first-half 2014 performance: “We have continued in H1 to demonstrate the strength and growth potential of UK Retail which is benefiting from ongoing efficiency initiatives and further expansion of the estate.” Yes, that’s right – Ladbrokes has no intention of slowing down. Instead, the ominous statement that they are benefitting from ‘further expansion of the estate’, suggests that bookies are on the hunt for yet more retail space on our high streets, in our towns and in our shopping centres – Huddersfield town centre itself has eleven according to the BBC programme. It’s a simple question of supply and demand.
But can the high street and our wider retail industry learn something from the rise of the betting shop, rather than simply bemoaning their success? In short, yes. Whilst most people put the success of the bookie down to a growing gambling epidemic, the real reason may be much simpler than we first thought…
With the continuing demise of churches, working men’s clubs and even the local pub, we have been left with a community vacuum, a chasm where we were once a sociable, congregational people. Whilst the betting shop hasn’t necessarily become a direct replacement, it has, perhaps even unknowingly, combined the old world of community with the new world of consumer retail. Where there were once pews, there are now stools. Where there was once an altar, now there are now TVs broadcasting more sports channels than you could possibly want. It’s a place for people to meet, stay a while and escape, and all the time spend those precious pounds. Old meets new. Leisure meets retail.
And perhaps that’s the great lesson for the retail industry more broadly. It’s not enough just to wander into a shop, buy something and leave. We need to escape. We need an experience. We need a sense of place. Apple have cottoned on to this, with their open plan, super friendly, super visual stores. Yes, the betting shop isn’t the same in terms of presentation, but the concept of holding the consumer’s attention and creating a community feel is common to both.
It’s this sense of place that has seen the betting industry buck the online trend too, unlike many of its high street neighbours. Only 7 percent of core betting shop customers said they would shift spend online in the coming years (http://www.stopthefobts.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/UKBettingShopsNov2012V_1Final.pdf). For regulars, the bookie provides a sense of place and community that the online betting world clearly cannot replicate. These are places to socialise, discuss and yes, bet.
Independents and high street names may bemoan the bookie, but there’s always a reason for success. The question is are they willing to learn from the humble bookmaker?
Put simply – I wouldn’t bet on it.