High-street betting shops, like the many retail-based businesses, have taken a serious blow over the past two years – but that hasn’t dissuaded operators with an interest in the vertical.
One such firm that has gone full-steam ahead with a UK retail rollout is BoyleSports, which has long pursued an expansion outside the domestic Irish market where it first began as a single store in Markethill, Co. Armagh back in 1982.
Speaking with SBC in Deansgate, Manchester, BoyleSports’ Director of Property and Development, Lee Otter, elaborated on the growth of the company’s high street presence, and emphasised why retail will continue to be a safe bet for the operator because of the significance of a community feeling.
How building trust can build a brand
“I have 100% confidence in retail staying strong, and I think that comes down to the fundamental difference between being online and in a betting shop, which is the social environment.
“Customers get the general experience of being around like-minded people and the feeling of having cash in your hand, but it predominantly revolves around that social interaction. That’s why for us it’s incredibly important to get the environment spot on to facilitate that.”
The ultimate benefit of interacting with customers in this kind of environment, Otter explained, is the sense of trust that customers develop with staff members, and the positive relationships that are built as a result.
This has benefits not just with regards to customer retention, but also safe and responsible gambling – a factor which has become ever more important in recent years, and with the outcome of the Gambling Act review still on hold.
“The customer has fun within the limits that they’ve got. Everybody is happy with it and you build up trust. That for me is one of the big things for us when growing our estate – building the brand and building trust.
“We want people to be able to have trust in us to provide them with all they could want from a modern betting shop and do it well, and offer them the sort of facilities where they enjoy the betting shop experience. You get more of that in small town and neighbourhood environments which are often less transient than in city centres.”
A shifting paradigm
As Otter observed, however, this type of community spirit is often found in local betting shops and less so in city centres, a factor which has heavily influenced BoyleSports’ geographical approach to its UK rollout.
In the Property Director’s view, there has been a ‘behavioural shift’ – starting before the pandemic before being accelerated by subsequent lockdowns and the increase in ‘flexible working’ – which has seen customers focus more on local, conveniently accessible betting locations.
“In addition, smaller town centres, district centres and local parades often have larger units available, for less rent, and as a result they have a reduced risk profile, which gives the shop the best fighting chance,” he asserted.
“When you assess the betting markets, you can see that in some areas there is a demand for strong independent bookmaker with good facilities.”
Addressing this, BoyleSports has so far stayed away from the busy city centres and instead focused on towns such as Ellesmere Port, Cheshire and Darlaston, West Midlands, with plans to expand throughout the UK in time.
Once a suitable location has been identified, the operator’s main focus has been on ensuring that “the quality is the same in every shop” as Otter maintained: “There are no half-measures, the experience has to be right in every location.”
This has seen the bookmaker adopt 50-55 inch TV screens spread across six-over-six, seven-over-seven or eight-over-eight curved gantries.
Content, meanwhile, comes from the likes of Sky Sports, TRP and SIS (Sports Information Services), whilst also striving to make sure shops offer all ‘the creature comforts’ a punter might want.
Otter explained: “We want to give customers what they want and what they deserve in a modern betting shop and build up trust. That goes right across the board, whether that’s from a trading perspective or from a physical perspective, like with the comfort and layout of the shops.
“Our concession packages are innovative, relevant and change daily, so they provide punters what they really want. I can see the impact this is having on the shops, we are actually giving more money back.
“Ultimately that is what punters want, and if they can do it in an environment where they have the full range of creature comforts, why would they not visit? That’s why I have confidence in our brand and our ability to gain market share in any location – by giving the customer what they want.”
Where does the high-street lead?
Moving forward, Otter mapped out BoyleSports’s plans for further expansion. So far, the company has opened seven new shops across England (six of those in the past 3 months), whilst also extending an existing shop, but there are future developments to look ahead to.
The Director noted that there are still M&A opportunities – such as some of the smaller betting chains which may be interested in selling up – in the British retail market, as well as potential for organic growth.
Turning the conversation to international growth, he added: “The Netherlands and South Africa are areas we are also looking at. There’s an appetite for regulated, or currently regulating, environments. Some of the bigger players have been bitten by being in grey markets, as these are uncertain and there are CSR concerns around this.
“Regulated markets and newly regulating markets do offer potential opportunities – some more than others – but it’s one of many strands.
“Ultimately, the company is prepared to get involved and diversify – we are keen not to be a one trick pony. We want to investigate any opportunities that continue to be available.”
The mention of diversification, on the other hand, raised again the familiar topic which has been discussed in betting circles for over a decade – how can retail stand up to online?
The winning formula
For Otter and BoyleSports, social interaction and a community feel will always be key drivers of customer retention, whilst noting that a combined retail/online omni-channel approach is the ‘utopia’ firms should strive towards.
He concluded: “It all goes down to the fundamental premise that online is very different. You have a social interaction in betting shops and being around like-minded people and so we focus heavily on offering the environment that facilitates that.
“We also offer customers the BoyleXtra card, which enables them to bet however and whenever it suits the customer; in shop, online, in shop using your online balance, on the app or over the phone.”
In addition, and present in every BoyleSports betting shop are their self-service betting terminals (SSBT’s), which Otter maintained ‘are a step towards online via an electronic means of betting’, providing punters with a bridge to, and a familiar feel for, those more accustomed to online wagering: “You can use the terminals to readily give them the vast information they are used to online, which in turn brings on new customers.”
For BoyleSports, the combination of the right choice of location, offering comfortable shops with a full range of engaging content and – perhaps most importantly the community spirit and social interactions of the high-street bookie – means the company has “absolute confidence in a continued loyal retail customer base” for retail betting.