These are difficult times for the High Street, not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK and indeed the world. All the restrictions of the past year or two have only accelerated what was already an alarming trend of closures. Last year, the number of empty shops hit a record high, with almost one in five of the UK’s retail units standing vacant.
We’ve all heard the well-worn cliché about shopping parades being reduced to “nothing but fast food joints and betting shops.” But while the takeaway business is booming, the nation’s bookies are facing changing times. the truth is it is far easier to find the best betting odds online and it is certainly less effort to pick up your phone than to go out to the betting shop.
A changing landscape
The betting shop has been part of the UK landscape for the past 60 odd years. In the 1970s, there was a time when betting shops were opening at a rate of 100 per week. During the same period, takeaways selling exotic overseas fare such as Chinese and Indian takeaways and kebab shops also became popular, and they all became ubiquitous in suburban shopping parades.
With the rise of online sports betting, however, around 1000 betting shops closed down between 2012 and 2019. Note that this was before the additional changes in gambling habits that inevitably came about during lockdown restrictions.
Impossible to compete
Online betting isn’t just more convenient than going out to a betting shop. It also offers far more choice and flexibility, with innovations like in-play betting, where you can continue to place bets on a match or race while it is in progress. This just wouldn’t be possible when you are handing in a paper betting slip at a traditional bookie’s. The online providers are also able to offer better odds and generous promotions and bonuses as they have vastly lower overheads when there is no physical shop to operate.
It’s a challenge that is also facing the casino business, but there, at least, there is the social factor of getting dressed up and joining friends for a night out at the casino. With the best will in the world, nobody ever chose their local betting shop as a venue to impress a first date.
A glimmer of hope
There’s no doubt that the days of seeing a betting shop on every corner are behind us. However, that’s not to say they will entirely go the way of video rental shops. Industry statistics suggest that the big spending high-end clientele is more inclined to visit a physical betting facility than to simply place bets using their smartphones.
By essentially focusing on the sports betting equivalent of the high rollers, and creating a VIP environment for them to not only place their bets but to watch the action unfold with exclusive privileges like drinks and snacks, they could not only survive but thrive. Perhaps in the months and years ahead, that idea of a date at the bookies will not seem so far-fetched after all.