Sazka Group has defended its ‘digital first’ bid to run the UK’s National Lottery as supporting, rather than detracting from retail sales.

The Czech lottery operator is competing against Camelot and others to run the UK’s major lottery from 2023 onwards. However, Sazka chairman Sir Keith Mills angered the NFRN last month in an FT interview by stating the lottery needed to be “dragged into the digital age”. The NFRN said it was ‘a kick in the teeth’ for stores.

Challenged by betterRetailing about its comments, Sazka Group suggested critics were ‘misinformed.’

In an interview with betterRetailing, a spokesperson for the group explained: “It’s not just digital online or through your mobile phone, it’s digital in retail as well. The retailers play an incredibly important part in the distribution of The National Lottery, we are saddened to see people have been misinformed to the contrary.”

Commenting on the use of ‘digital solutions’ in its partnered stores, Sazka added: “The retail sector is still the front line for lottery sales, which is why we have identified a number of digital solutions to support our retailers. For example, we use modelling to identify hot spots for lottery retail sales, allowing for efficient investment strategies in areas with the highest potential. Then, for underperforming areas, we work closely with distributors and retailers to understand root causes and implement speedy solutions.”

The focus on digital lottery growth is itself a major focus of the Gambling Commission in deciding who will be awarded the license to operate the National Lottery. Letters uncovered by betterRetailing last year from the regulator to applicants said: “Developing the channel mix to adapt to ever-changing participant tastes and evolving technologies is seen as critical.”

In the Financial Times, Mills said money raised for good causes had stalled and the National Lottery risked decline unless it is ‘reinvigorated.’ Both the NFRN and Camelot disputed the claim highlighting a 14% rise in funds for good causes since 2014. The  NFRN accused Sazka as wanting to use the lottery as a “gambling money spinner, supported by big business and investment companies and distant from the players, retailers and communities that it is supposed to support.”

The firm defended its relationships with retailers stating it would make The National Lottery “central to the highstreet recovery.” The spokesperson told RN:  “Retailers need an operator who can guarantee consistent sales growth. If you look at our track record across Europe, that’s exactly what we deliver. Average lottery market growth in Europe during 2013-2018 was 7.4%, yet Sazka Group reached double digit sales growth, including 77.7% in the Czech Republic, 26.8% in Greece, 26.6% in Italy and 14.8% in Austria.”

Asked about its plans for stores under the future National Lottery license, current operator Camelot described stores as ‘the lifeblood of their communities’, ‘critical to the National Lottery’s success’ and said they had played a vital role during the pandemic. Referencing £7billion in commission it has paid to shops, Camelot concluded: “As [Retailers] have always been there for us, they can rely on us in both bad times and good.”

The winning candidate is set to be announced in October this year ahead of the new license period beginning in August 2023.