Weblog: Betting Shop Manager of the Year
Super Frankel should not blinker us over FOBTs
Horseracing is the core product of betting shops, boosted this week by the mighty Frankel again proving himself a proper wonder-horse.
Nevertheless, other sports are grabbing a bigger share. Depending on which region of Britain you live in it may be football which challenges racing's dominance, but golf, cricket, tennis and both codes of rugby are showing significant increases as racing continues to decline. One thing that your location won't have a bearing on is the rise and rise of the Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs, or gaming machines).
Other than in the smallest of independent outlets you will find these FOBTs shining invitingly, running through demonstrations of a huge array of games available at the touch of a button. Allowing customers to play up to £100 per shot, with a potential £500 maximum return on each go, they have become immensely popular with all generations, but particularly younger clients who find the touch-screen technology second nature to use. They are the major growth area across the betting industry and bookmakers would now struggle to be without them.
As things stand betting shops are limited to a maximum of four FOBTs per outlet, but that could change after a recommendation from the Commons' Culture, Media and Sport Committee that in practice might allow shops to increase machines as they see fit, with the potential for up to 20 per branch.
This proposal has been met with condemnation by GamCare, and other politicians. The fear is an upsurge in FOBTs in betting shops will lead to an explosion in problem gamblers. So, since the announcement was made regarding a possible increase in machines I have sought the thoughts of a wide group of people. These include Scotbet's Machines Manager John Nellies, my Area Manager Willie Lynas and, the people who these decisions effect most, my punters.
This review of the Gambling Act 2005, headed by Conservative MP John Whittingdale, has a purpose, among others, to address the perceived issue of betting shop 'clustering'.
The review concluded that gambling was "now widely accepted in the UK as a legitimate entertainment activity" and that the 2005 Act was "not sufficiently evidence based". Again, in different parts of the country that statement will be viewed in different ways. I can only tell you what my experiences are and how our punters have reacted.
I fully agree with the entertainment aspect of the statement. Visits to the betting shop should only be viewed as a fun hobby, with money you can afford to lose. Winning should not be an expectation when placing your bet, but a bonus, and betting shops should not be viewed as a source of income, the only exception to this being if you are a member of staff on the payroll. A visit to your local bookie should be more about having fun, being entertained and spending your spare time enjoying yourself. People will invariably vote with their feet and, like it or loathe it, more and more are voting to spend that time playing these machines.
So, with that in mind I decided to strip the issues back to their most basic form and ask for people's thoughts on two key questions.
1. Extra machines in shops - good or bad?
2. How do you feel bookmakers meet their social responsibilities to customers now, and how do you anticipate this to change with any introduction of more FOBTs?
Our machines manager John Nellies led the case for more FOBTs, but fully understood the arguments against, so was at pains to justify his opinion that this was a natural progression for shops. John reasoned that the explosion of internet and mobile betting was a major factor in the reduced footfall found in most shops. FOBTs were high street outlets' way of offering a comparable service, a way of "fighting back".
Whilst at the ICE Totally Gaming Exhibition 2011, he visited many London betting shops and noted queues waiting to play - uncomfortable to those having their turn at that time. More accessible play would not just lead to a greater customer experience, but may well reduce the peer pressure felt by clients who dealt with this by upping their spins to speed the game along.
He rightly pointed out that machines cost money so the likelihood of shops being swamped everywhere was highly unlikely and that natural "supply and demand" would dictate how many FOBTs were in individual shops. He also added that this should in theory ease the cluster issue, although did voice concern that this could lead to significant job losses where companies had a number of shops in a relatively small area.
Willie Lynas expressed concern that more machines could have a negative impact on over the counter trade, but added that the likelihood was that it was a positive thing for business and was the "price of progress".
Craig, manager of another company's betting shop in a neighbouring town, said "The impact of FOBTs are huge across the betting estate, more than four FOBTs will come. They definitely seem the way forward".
Turning to punters' perspective, Jake is happy to see more in the shop if it led to a more comfortable experience, but would have liked to see an increase in the jackpot to £1,000. John C questioned the need for extra and said he didn't mind waiting for a short time to play, although conceded that busy inner city shops should have the option if they felt that extra machines were needed.
The majority of customers said they were comfortable with the prospect of a few more, but there was not support for any more than ten. Wullie McBride said the status quo should remain, and that more would just look stupid. "A bookies should be a bookies, not an arcade" he said, and George K went even further in saying he would like to see them removed completely. George is a proper punter. He enjoys the sport of horseracing and is a knowledgeable man. He is concerned about the speed in which you can win or lose money on FOBTs and claims bookies would become busier places without them completely. His argument is that if someone comes into the shop with £100 in their pocket, betting £10 per horse race they have, in a worst case scenario over an hour and a half to lose all that money (races being ten minutes apart). That money, at the same £10 per play, can be gone inside ten minutes through FOBTs.
The issue of problem gambling is closely associated with FOBTs: our gambling compliance folder alone indicates a link.
As part of bookmakers' commitment to protecting the vulnerable, all bookmakers offer a service where if a customer feels that their gambling is getting out of control they can choose to self-exclude themselves from the shop. The minimum period of self-exclusion is six months, and can extend to five years. As a safety net, any customer who chooses this action cannot change their mind or the terms, and must observe a 24-hour 'cooling off' period before they are allowed to resume betting. This prevents any customer who could come back, but who may not have resolved their issues to succumb to temptation, have a spur of the moment binge.
Of the nine people who have self-excluded from Scotbet in Selkirk only two took this action because of their over the counter betting, the other seven all doing so because they have felt playing the machines was too much for them to control.
Again, on this issue John Nellies makes the point that self-exclusion is a positive step and that it is far easier for shop staff to be in a position to assist in these cases than have vulnerable people at home playing on devices where there isn't the same protection. "Our staff are trained to recognise any behaviour that may identify problem gambling and how to assist those most in need".
We have in Selkirk ten locations in the shop where the GamCare leaflets and helpline number are displayed. Social Responsibility is not something I take lightly and I have, with the support of our management, actively encouraged half a dozen of the nine who have self-excluded. It is our company policy to have leaflets beside each FOBT in the shop, and also in toilets where any customer can read or take away a leaflet without feeling he or she has the eyes of the shop on them while they battle their demons. Would extra machines make people who had no intention of playing them feel more compelled to try? John says "It really is a matter of personal choice. I don't believe that someone who has no interest in playing FOBTs would be more likely to were there ten machines in the shop rather than two".
John C complains that we are in danger of becoming a 'nanny state'. "If people work hard all week and decide to come into the bookies and blow a few quid in the machines then they should be able to. You have warnings up for people to get help so what more can you do?"
George K also says that there is assistance there, but questions whether everyone applies that help consistently across the board. "You have shops running competitions trying to get people who don't care about them hooked" he says, "how can that be right?"
John Nellies, on that point, replies: "Like every company in every industry all we are trying to do is showcase our new products and promote any edge we may have over our competitors. We do this in a cost free manner and it is not intended to lure people in or expose people to situations that they will find difficult to handle".
And me? I believe with the government taxation plan for FOBTs, more and more of them will appear and, if that is what the paying public want, then why not have them in betting shops?
But we must be vigilant to the potential problems that it may bring and make sure we have the correct support in place for those who do experience difficulties. We are all adults, but like the leaflet says, let's keep it fun. Not everybody can.