William Hill is planning to close 700 betting shops, putting 4,500 jobs at risk and dealing a further blow to UK high streets already reeling from the closure of retail stores and bank branches.
The FTSE 250 bookmaker said there had been a “significant fall” in gaming machine revenues since April, when new stake limits were introduced on fixed-odds betting terminals. The machines have been blamed for causing gambling addiction.
The planned store closures will deal another blow to retail landlords and local authorities, which are facing rising vacancy rates, lower rents and reduced business rate receipts as a result of retrenchment on the nation’s high streets.
Big high street chains such as Debenhams, Arcadia and Monsoon have all launched insolvency procedures this year, seeking to break leases on unprofitable stores and cut rents on others.
Even healthier retailers are pulling back. Marks and Spencer expects to close more than 100 high street stores by 2022, while Boots recently confirmed plans to shut 200 smaller pharmacy stores.
William Hill has been hit by new government-imposed limits on the FOBTs, with maximum stake sizes cut from £100 to £2.
The Gambling Commission said gross profits from FOBTs were £1.7bn in 2018, before the maximum stake was reduced. Its figures from 2016 show that nearly 14 per cent of those using FOBTs registered as problem gamblers, higher than any other form of betting.
Matt Hancock, the UK culture minister when the FOBT stake cut was announced, called the machines a “social blight”.
William Hill has 2,300 out of a total of about 8,500 bookmaker shops in the UK and employs 14,000 people across its retail estate.
It is not the only bookmaker forecasting substantial shop closures as a result of the cut in FOBT stake size. GVC, which owns Ladbrokes Coral and is the UK’s largest high-street bookmaker, said it expected to shut about 1,000 shops, while Betfred said it would close up to 500.
Most of the affected William Hill shops are expected to shut by the end of the year.
Bill Grimsey, a former retail executive who has authored two reports on how to regenerate high streets, said gambling was moving online just as retailing was and urged planners to broaden the scope of high streets beyond just shops. “Where local authorities approach it in a more determined way, they can still regenerate these towns,” he said.
The declining profitability of their stores is only one of the problems facing bookmakers, who are also under growing pressure to deal with problem gambling. William Hill and four other gambling companies recently announced measures to improve their safer gambling policies, including a tenfold increase in contributions to a voluntary levy that helps fund treatment for problem gamblers.
As UK bookmakers face greater regulation in their home market, many have turned to the US, where sports betting was legalised at a federal level last May.
Mr Johnson said William Hill had a “unique position” in the US. It is the only one of the UK gambling companies to operate in all eight states that have active sports betting markets.
It is also set to benefit from the $17.3bn merger between El Dorado and Caesars Entertainment, agreed in June. William Hill has a joint venture with El Dorado to supply a sportsbook to its casinos.
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