Donald Morrison: Tough times ahead for independent bookies but don’t write them all off

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Horseracing and betting are part of Julie Williams’ DNA. “Oh, I absolutely love it, the social interaction, the vibrancy of the races, the action and excitement.” The Ayrshire bookie grew up around some of the most celebrated names in the sport, not surprising since her father Freddie was one of the best-known 
bookies of his time. He earned the nickname ‘Fearless Freddie’ because of his incredible boldness – on one memorable day at the races he lost £1 million.

Seven years after his death, Julie – a former restaurateur – is now at the helm of the family business that still retains her father’s name. The firm once operated eight betting shops across the central belt but now has just two shops, in Cumnock and Auchinleck.

By 9am, the Cumnock shop is busy, with a constant flow of punters placing bets on the day’s races. For many, particularly the older customers, a visit to the local bookie is part of their daily routine, somewhere to catch up with friends.

I meet Betty Stewart from Cumnock whose husband was a regular customer. Five years after his death, Betty carries on the tradition, visiting every day to place bets for herself and her neighbours. “I enjoy the atmosphere and the way the people treat me and that I’m getting to mix with people that I know and like,” she says. “Everyone treats me with respect. The staff are outstanding. They couldn’t do enough for me. I really think it’s wonderful to have something like this because I’d be lost otherwise. I love it.”

Williams is one of a dwindling band of independent bookmakers, more than 40 per cent of which have disappeared in recent years. Even Scotland’s largest independent bookmaker, Scotbet, has warned of tough times ahead for independent bookmakers.

Williams attributes the decline to rising costs and changing consumer tastes. “Unfortunately, we see fewer younger faces come in and I think that’s a real shame because they’re missing out on an opportunity to engage with each other, catch up with the week’s events, talk about football and generally be part of a community environment,” she says.

Williams employs a team of ten staff, all female. Morale is high, staff turnover low. The business offers flexible working for those with family or study commitments. Staff training is rigorous and ongoing. Shop workers have to keep on top of the often complex and fast changing regulations around self exclusion, money laundering and age verification. But it’s clear that the staff have a strong bond with their customers.

“We all know who they are, they know who we are. So the relationship is so much better. On occasion, they’ve asked us to go for a drink, or we’ve met them in the pub. We’ve got great relationships with them. They’ll never walk past you on the street without saying hello,” says Lyn Murphy, a shop manager.

It’s fair to say that bookies haven’t always enjoyed a good reputation, with politicians and the media calling for a curb on the number of shops and a cap on the amount customers can bet on gaming machines. Williams and her team think much of the criticism is based on a lack of understanding about the industry.

“There is so much in place to help people who are having problems with gambling and staff are trained to the highest standard on how to spot it, how to target it straight away and provide help. On the other hand, it’s someone’s own choice to go to any bookmakers. If they were to close some down, they would just find another place to go to,” says manager Sarah Melrose.

Williams reminds me that problem gambling in Scotland is very low – currently at 0.7 per cent according to the 2015 Scottish Health Survey. She is clear that the local bookie is the safest place to gamble. “For me, it’s the place where you can have social interaction with other people and where there are controls in place, with staff making sure customers are OK.” Hitting bookies could simply drive problem gambling out of sight, she warns.

After 40 years in business, how confident is she about the future of the family firm, given the challenge of escalating costs and declining margins? “It’s very difficult, I’m not going to pretend it’s anything but. I’m exceptionally lucky. We have a very loyal customer base but I can absolutely see how those costs are pushing people out of business.”

Donald Morrison, public affairs 
and media relations, Association of British Bookmakers