Betting shops have been around for 60 years - and there's plenty of life left in them yet
On May 1st 1961, the first legal betting shops opened in the UK, eight months after MPs had passed a law aimed at stamping out back street bookies.
I wasn’t even born then, but would go on to spend all my working life – 40-plus years in total - in and around betting shops. I think this gives me a decent insight into how they have evolved over the years and, crucially, how they will flourish in the future.
First, a quick run through my CV. My first job in the industry was with Gus Carter, which at the time was the biggest bookmaker in the north east of England. I answered the phones and helped process all of the bets placed via the ‘clock bags’ which used to contain bets, and which were collected by agents and delivered to the shops and head office.
I managed to work my way up the ranks and eventually became an area manager, a post I held until Gus Carter was bought by Stanleybet in 1996. By the time they themselves were bought by William Hill in 2005, I was a regional controller looking after a couple of hundred shops. In 2011, my job expanded to 700 shops covering the major cities in the north of England - Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester - and the north east.
By 2016 I was a director looking after every William Hill’s shop north of Nottingham, and in 2018 became UK operations director, the job I had until I retired last week.
Unsurprisingly, over the past four decades I’ve seen a fair bit of change in the industry – some good, some bad. It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in the late 1970s, when I started off, the majority of bets were for horse and greyhound races. Shops themselves weren’t terribly inviting places. They were basic and often smoky, and you had a crackling speaker in the corner providing racing commentary – ‘the blower’, as it was affectionately known by customers.
What was really transformational was the introduction of live TV racing in shops in 1987/88. Overnight, it improved and modernised the customer experience and made betting shops much more enjoyable places to visit. A few years later we were allowed to open in the evenings and then Sundays as well, which again was truly transformational and massively popular with customers.
The introduction of the National Lottery in 1994 hit betting shops hard because suddenly people could buy a Lottery ticket or a scratchcard in a multitude of local shops and newsagents, with many customers making the National Lottery their first choice for gambling. Material changes in the industry, like the removal of betting tax, definitely helped the industry to cope.
We thought the smoking ban could potentially impact shop business as many customers enjoyed a cigarette, but a more healthy and improved environment actually ended up attracting different customers, so it proved to be really beneficial. There’s great focus on the customer experience now – shops are air conditioned, brighter and just more welcoming now than they were years ago. Comfort and product zoning are what customers expect from a modern betting shop.
Colleagues are also trained to look out for customers who may be spending more than they can afford, or have changed their betting behaviour, with increased or more regular staking. Staff can step in and offer support with a personal discussion. Our top priority is safer gambling, making sure that everyone who walks through our doors has a safe, compliant and enjoyable experience.
We all know that the last year has been tough for betting shops, alongside the rest of the high street. Lockdown hit the industry hard, but I’ve seen enough evidence to suggest that betting shops have a bright future. When we re-opened for the first time last June, we saw the strong demand that still exists for retail betting. Lots of customers, including the elderly, were pleased to be able to come back and see familiar faces behind the counter and engage with other customers in a safe environment. Betting shops offer a unique experience that you just can’t get online. You can go in, watch a race, have a brew and meet your friends. The social interaction element is what make betting shops so special.
A lot of shops act as a community hub, and that’s really important for lots of people. Of course, there are also the economic benefits that betting shops bring to high streets, with our customers going on to spend money in other places nearby.
Betting shops have been around for 60 years for a reason. They may have changed an awful lot since the 1960s, but they are still an important part of communities the length and breadth of the country. I’ve retired now, which means I’m finally allowed to bet with William Hill – and I look forward to nipping in to my local shop every weekend to stick on my Lucky 15 and football coupon.
I genuinely believe that we’ll start to see more betting shops opening up in the next couple of years, which is great news for jobs and the economy, for punters and local communities.
Steven White is William Hill's former UK operations director