One of the oldest brands on the Great British high street, William Hill is in danger of disappearing.
The news emanating from the firm, who have been around for the best part of a century, is that 119 of their high street betting shops will be closed forever due to a downturn in trading.
On the face of it, 119 of more than 1500 shops isn’t a huge slice of their real estate gone, but 8% in one slash of the Grim Reaper’s scythe is still considerable.
The issue, offered up by the firm’s Ulrik Bengtsson, is that footfall has not returned to normal since the outbreak of coronavirus, and that the behaviour of punters when in their shops has also changed.
A statement from the brand read: “We anticipate that longer term retail footfall will not return to pre-COVID levels, and 119 shops will remain closed following early lease breaks, with the majority of colleagues redeployed within the estate.”
That last point is key: despite the lofty number of shop closures, a large percentage of the 300 staff affected have been moved to new shops, although there are still 16 redundancies reported.
It’s not the first blow to the high street presence of William Hill. When the UK government announced it was reducing the maximum stake on FOBT machines from £100 to £2, it decimated betting in towns and cities – Will Hill alone is said to have closed as many as 700 shops in England, Scotland and Wales.
Bengtsson suggested that Covid-19 was another unforeseen factor having a major impact upon the industry. “One learning is that footfall is down. Another is the dwell time is down. People don’t dwell in the shops in the same way. That is changing behaviour but equally we have seen staking go up. It all has to be seen in the broader context of Covid.”
William Hill Becomes First UK Firm to Pay Back Furlough Funds
Despite those woes in their retail division, the picture is somewhat rosier for the brand as a whole – so much so, they are repaying the £24.5 million in furlough funds claimed from the government.
Those had protected the jobs of William Hill’s 7,000 strong retail workers, but having recorded higher-than-expected profits they were able to repay the government’s generosity.
In the first half of 2020 they recorded profits of £141 million, although there is a caveat to that in that the firm did receive a £200 million VAT refund as part of a landmark legal case. Their profit & loss account in the same period in 2019 read a large loss of £63 million.
The numbers behind the numbers are telling, however. Net revenue actually fell in the first months of 2020 by an eye-watering 32%, and adjusted operating profit was down 85% to £11.4 million – that was due to Covid-19, and a situation anticipated by William Hill’s number bods.
It’s all positive enough, especially as eyes turn Stateside towards an increasingly relaxed legislative environment. Bengtsson said: “I am delighted with William Hill’s performance in these extraordinary times. Our team has been remarkable, supporting each other and our customers throughout the pandemic, and I would like to thank them for their continuing efforts.
“Therefore, given the strength of our recovery post-lockdown, we have decided to repay the furlough funds.”
Tough Times, But Green Shoots of Recovery
The pre-planning of William Hill, who saw the disarray caused by the coronavirus coming, helped them to protect against the ravages of shop closures and the blackout of the sporting calendar.
Controlled cost measures enabled them to bunker down and look positively to the future, and especially in the US, where new state openings – Illinois is the latest to welcome sports betting to its soil – are presenting plenty of opportunities.
William Hill’s international online arm increased by 17% thanks to a series of acquisitions, and today they claim to take one in three bets placed on American soil.
Reflecting on the first half of 2020, Bengtsson said: “It has probably been the most difficult circumstances of my and many of my colleagues’ professional lives to guide the company through all this. Coming out the way we did and actually making a small profit in the period is incredible.”