Is It Right For Betting Shops To Sell Food & Drink?
In the wake of the decision from the government to limit the maximum stake payable on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, bookmakers have looked to increase possibly revenue from their high street shops, thinking outside of the box to encourage people into their spaces. That has involved numerous different schemes and ideas, one of which has been to convert the shops into so-called ‘shared hosting spaces’, which we covered a few weeks back in the wake of Coral and Ladbrokes decision to covert some of their shops. This is an attempt to make a bookies more like a coffee shop, such as Starbucks, by having people work, study or simply chill in them. The idea being they don’t necessarily have to bet but can use betting shops for other means. In reality we know the idea is simply to get more people through the doors in the hope they do bet.
In October of 2021, William Hill came under criticism for launching an in-store café that sold hot food and drinks. Some of the things on their menu were cheaper than McDonald’s, which led to some people suggesting that the gambling firm was employing ‘cynical’ tactics to get people through the door before encouraging them to gamble. The obvious question then becomes whether this is something of a natural evolution for betting shops or whether it is over-stepping the mark and potentially resulting in people placing more bets than they normally would.
What William Hill Have Done
William Hill, who were recently acquired by 888, have decided to launch a pilot scheme in five of its 1,048 betting shops, claiming that it has done so because customers have asked for it. It has long been common for bookies to offer punters free teas and coffees as well as to sell snacks, but this move is one that looks to have taken things a step further. Here’s a list of the food available at a branch in Manchester that is part of the scheme, for example:
- Sausage & Egg Muffin – £2
- Bacon & Egg Muffin – £2
- Vegetarian Muffin – £2
- Filled Roll – £2
- Cheese & Ham Toastie – £2.50
- Big Al’s Burger – £2.50
- Big Al’s Chicken Burger – £2.50
- Crispy Crumbed Vegetable Quarter Pounder – £2
- Big Al’s Gourmet Hot Dog – £2.50
- Quorn Hot Dog – £2.50
- Steak Bake – £1.50
- Sausage Roll – £1
- Crisps – 50p
- Chocolate Bar – 70p
The food has seemingly been priced to be competitive when compared to the likes of McDonald’s, with the fast food giant charging more for chicken burgers and breakfast muffins. This has led some critics of the gambling industry to suggest that the food is being sold as a loss-leader, meaning that the bookmaker is happy to lose a little bit of money over it if it means that people are coming through the door and spending money by betting on things, which the bookie knows will lead to a profit over time.
The same thing is true of drinks, with the following being on their drinks menu:
- Espresso – £1.25
- Americano – £1.59
- Latte – £1.59
- Cappuccino – £1.59
- Flat White – £1.59
- Mocha – £1.59
- Tea – £1
- Hot Chocolate – £1.59
- Cold Drink – 50p or 70p
Again, the prices are much lower than the equivalent drinks would be at a high street coffee shop like Starbucks, Costa or Cafe Nero. Matt Zarb-Cousin, the founder of Clean Up Gambling, has been critical of the move, saying,
“When the cheapest sausage and egg muffin on the high street is in William Hill, you start to wonder whether the food is there as a loss leader, in an attempt to generate new customers.”
Is It A Natural Evolution For Bookmakers?
The reality for bookmakers is such that they are always going to struggle to persuade people through their doors in a world where it is so easy to bet online. Whilst FOBTs were a terrible thing that essentially allowed bookies to print money, they did get people through the door on a regular basis. The decision of the government to cut the maximum stake playable on them was the correct one, but it has resulted in many companies losing large amounts of money as a result. Consequently, bookies need to start thinking outside the box.
Whilst critics might not like it, people will continue to place bets as long as they’re allowed to. There is also a truth in the idea that many people who use physical betting shops on the high street are in the poorer demographic areas. With this in mind, is it not a good thing that they’re being enabled to buy food and drink for less money than they’d have to spend on the same thing from other high street shops? If they’re going to be in a bookies anyway, surely it’s better that they at least get fed and watered for less whilst they’re there?
The decision from Coral and Ladbrokes to make their shops into ‘shared hosting spaces’ is one that proves that bookmakers are having to think of other ways to get punters through their doors. Whilst this might indeed by ‘a cynical plot’, as described by Labour MP Carolyn Harris, is it any different from shops that put on sales every week or occasions such as when the National Lottery offers huge jackpots? Betting companies are businesses that need to make money and they are trying to do so in whatever legal way that they can.
Is It Over-Reaching?
People that login to an online betting account to place a wager know what they’re doing from the moment that they open an account. They are fully aware of the fact that the company that they’re signing up with takes bets for money, even if they’ve only signed up to take advantage of an introductory offer or to place a bet on a massive race such as the Grand National. The question around high street betting shops offering cheap food and drink is that are they effectively trying to ‘trick’ people onto the premises?
Once people are inside, they might well decide to place a bet that they wouldn’t have done if they hadn’t gone in for some food or a warm drink. There is certainly an argument that it is a case of over-reaching by the bookmaker, stepping out of the company’s wheelhouse in order to win over unsuspecting customers. Though they are employing more local people in order to make the food, plus more people will be employed if the shop remains open, but they are also masking their true intentions by pretending to be something that they’re not.
The strategy is not a new one for retail, for a long time there have been coffee shops and eateries in large department stores and shops – in fact this has been blamed for the death of many independent cafes already. Often people may just pop in for food or a drink but the owners rely on the fact that a proportion of people will make an unplanned purchase whilst there.
The ultimate question is whether potentially encouraging people to bet using food, drink, hosted workspaces, etc., is the right thing to do? Or, perhaps the view can be taken that the fact that these shops are there already and so prevalent on the high street means they should provide more services to the community? Casinos, bingo halls and arcades have for a long time offered various refreshments, indeed, in many casinos you can go out and have an à la carte meal. These places also often sell alcohol, which in itself can be a dangerous mix with gambling. On that basis is it only fair that betting shops should be able to offer food and drink?
It’s an open question and the success will largely depend on how people react to these changes and whether they use the new shop facilities. Similar strategies have already been successful on the continent, in Italy especially, although, whether it will suit a British culture remains to be seen.