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Hungerford Town’s Carl Reader on going cashless and bringing fans to Bulpit Lane

Carl Reader on making the club sustainable and the little changes that should bring more people through the gates

Hungerford Town’s Carl Reader on going cashless and bringing fans to Bulpit Lane

At the beginning of July the new vice chairman at Motorama National League South Hungerford Town, Carl Reader tweeted about seeing more card payments being accepted at Bulpit Lane next season.

You might think accepting card payments on the turnstiles at Bulpit Lane, behind the bars and in the club shop would be a fairly standard thing but anyone who’s a regular at non league football grounds will know that that is often not the case.

In my case, I very rarely carry cash resulting in regular dashes to the nearest cash point and an attempt to stretch what I have in to a pint and a burger.

What started out as a quick conversation about how the Crusaders were going to go about this upgrade quickly became something more thorough with Carl talking in depth about the little changes that were being made off the pitch. So rather than try and cut and edit, here in all it’s glory is everything we spoke about with Hungerford’s vice chairman, from Southend United to mobile drinks ordering and club benefactors to slowly changing a clubs image.

Related: Hungerford’s key National League South fixtures

Thanks for talking to us Carl, it seems like such a modern but obvious thing but what’s led you to bring card machines and how do you think they’ll affect the club?

I’m going to answer the long winded way but hopefully it’ll give you some background to it.

I am a Southend United supporter but I am also privileged to have been invited to sports events all around the world. I’ve seen different ways of things being done.

Southend funnily enough is still pretty much cash based. You’d expect to draw out £50 before a match. Whereas some of the matches I’ve seen in America, the NHL for example you get at seat service even if you aren’t in a box. Everything is very slick, the way it’s done.

I’m not proposing we’re looking to emulate the American model but what we need to do as a club, Hungerford – the reason Pat [Chairman Pat Chambers] and I stepped in in the first place is because the club had lost its way after it lost its benefactor.

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I am sure you know about the details of what happened, but basically the club had a wonderful benefactor but had also been quite lazy because they had a benefactor.

That’s one of the challenges when you’ve got a pot of cash, it’s very easy to forget the simple things you can do. Then the fact there is 18 months between the benefactor and the realisation that something needed to be done, the reality of the situation is the impact the benefactor had is demonstrated by the financial position, quite literally day to day struggles that club had.

So certainly one of the first things that we saw when we came in was the need to drive revenue. The club was run on a skinny basis anyway and there weren’t that many costs but we absolutely needed to get a handle on revenue and look at what levers we could pull just to try and help make the club sustainable.

We’ve got three guiding principles that we run the club by, transparancy, community, sustainability and the fact is if we don’t make it sustainable there’s not a club in five, ten, fifteen years time.

Given the situation and given the fact Pat and I aren’t benefactors either, we’ve both got our own businesses that are sponsoring in some way shape or form but we’re not just planning to chuck money in for the sake of it. It needs to be run properly so we’re looking at all areas that general business do.

Funnily enough credit and debit card payments were something I introduced to one of my businesses about seven to eight years ago and it felt far to late even then. Because we’re a professional services firm we were taking payment by cheque and bank transfer, we noticed we were getting fobbed off with cheques lost in the post and bank transfers will happen tomorrow, you know!

So we started taking card payments and we saw an immediate uplift in the acceptance of our clients to pay by card. There are still professional service firms that don’t take card payments. At the time I put it in though it felt like we were really behind so it feels like a really natural step for us to do at Hungerford, not only to improve the customer experience – instead of driving in to Hungerford town, then back out to the ground.

But also, lets be honest, if they bring a £20 note with them they might be tempted to spend £22 on the card. That might sound a bit brutal and very businesslike but you know, if every single person came through the gate and spent and extra £2, that’s a massive sum for the club.

This relates to our conversation on twitter, when I went with my friend last season to a game at Slough Town, we got to the gate – it was a County Cup game, and we got there and I realised I as usual didn’t have any cash. Turns out Slough had a card reader at the gate! It was a revelation! I think it’ll make supporters lives easier, would you agree?

Absolutely, that is the primary reason for doing it. Extra revenue is great but it is about improving customer experience.

I’d previously been asked to invest in a bar (not related to the club) and on of the things that we looked at was whether the bar could be run on a completely cashless basis. One of the reasons we would do that is because we could actually hard wire in some form of age verification so we could make sure we didn’t get any trouble with the licensing authorities, secondly we could tailor the experience form a customer – so even if these people were coming in for a £3 drink we could tailor the experience of the bar so that determine what drinks the customers want and what they are ordering.

It then naturally moves in to ordering via app and splitting rounds, all kinds of magical technology to really make it a novelty.

That didn’t go through and subsequently I don’t believe we can make Hungerford Town and Bulpit Lane completely cashless yet. I do think that we have a load of changes we are doing at the moment but I think that would be one of the steps far to far compared to how football is at the moment. But longer term it would be great to have a cashless football ground where we actually have very tight controls on what our average customer spend is and we could predict our turnover. That would really help the club stay afloat.

The second point, I touched on the bar and how it makes it easier. The problem that Hungerford Town have got is that not many people within the town really know about the football club or if they do they perhaps have a bit of a tainted view of it.

You’ve probably seen that we’ve pretty much got the lowest attendance in the National League South, in fact I think it was the lowest so one of our missions is to really drive up community engagement.

If we are expecting people to come for the first time, particularly families they would just expect they could pay by card

Carl Reader

We’re doing a lot of work with the local schools, we’ve designated a player day per week towards visiting schools or other extra curricular activities and we’re looking at being involved in Duke of Edinburgh scheme’s, all that kind of stuff so we’re doing what we believe is all the right stuff, we are new to it but it feels like we are making the right steps. We’ve also managed to get a good proportion of the town centre onside because they understand the benefit that a successful club can bring to footfall in the town centre. 

We’ve got that stuff in place but the reality is the last two matches where I started to get involved in the promotion, we had 480 and 580 through the gates I believe.

That’s going up from a usual attendance of around 220 so that’s a dramatic shift. A lot of people came for the first time and if we are expecting people to come for the first time, particularly families they would just expect they could pay by card. They wouldn’t think twice that they may need to get cash for the turnstile so we need to make the first time visitor experience as seemless as possible.

We’ve got some simple things, we’re designating a family area as well, I realised how important this was because I’ve got a two and a half year old son still in a pushchair and when we tried to get round one side of the ground we simply couldn’t, and no one told us that.

All of these things are ways to make the first time visitor, perhaps someone new to non league football, if we can make that experience as comfortable and seemless as possible as well as maybe three points, there is a higher chance of them returning.

I’ve not really heard anyone talking about the fan experience at football. This is bound to come along at some point, some one will say ‘this isn’t really non league football, it’s not supposed to be slick, why are you changing it?’. What would you say to that?

You mean those people who’ll look and say ‘who’s this t****r?’

I’m a normal bloke as it is, I would be an average non league supporter. I follow Southend United so I am not exactly a glory hunter so I do get it.

I’ve got a good proportion of mates at Southend who feel the same and have some resistance to the new stadium that is being built and so on.

I’ve seen it on the other side though, stepping in to the role at Hungerford I’ve seen quite openly and transparently how much the club depends on every single penny and every single bum on seat.

It’s not like the worlds of Arsenal’s, Liverpool’s. They don’t mind if there is an empty seat because there’s a waiting list. They’re isolated from the practicals of running a day to day sustainable club. The position Hungerford Town are in in National League South we’re at that horrible middle point between being a true non league amateur club and knocking on the door of league football. That brings with it challenges.

We need to look at some of the teams we’re up against last season Torquay United, away match in front of 5,300 people, Hungerford’s only got a population of 5,500!

We’re up against the likes of Billericay. Salford in their last published accounts had a defecit of £2.4million in the season they were in National League North. That’s unheard of for Hungerford. Probably a decade or more’s turnover.

Whilst we run on a very lean budget we need to make sure there’s no shortfall and I see my prime responsibility serving the club is to leave it in a better condition than I picked it up. That’s it.

Whether I am there for a season, three, ten, there needs to be incremental improvement so in an ideal situation whoever picks it up, the club are running at break even every year without any financial reliance on the board of directors.

That then allows you to have a much more informed choice of whether you bring in a benefactor to go on to the next level or whether you continue with people who can run it without having to put money in.

Rather than it being an ego trip or a way to dump money or whatever way you want to look at some of the multi-millionaire owners instead, it becomes something that can be done for passion, the community and a bit of a legacy. That’s the reason we need to focus on these phrases like customer service.

That’s not how we’d talk about it at the club house, we would be talking about the reality of how it makes their lives easier, how they don’t need a cash point. If they don’t want things to change though, nothing really has changed!

It might also allow us to diversify the food and drinks options depending on the seasons but if it brings in the families and helps attract a next generation of supporters then it’s a must have for the club.

We simply want to widen the base of who would be interested and taking the traditionalists along with us. Ultimately leaving the club house and such like as it is.

How have you gone about getting the equipment? How do other clubs go about getting a more cashless club?

In our club house we have a traditional PDQ machine and that’s as you’d expect with contactless technology but we only have one. 

The challenge we had in the ground is that we don’t have wifi through the ground! I could real off a list of suppliers but we’ve got to remember this is a non league club with a non league infrastructure.

We looked at iZettle that many people would be familiar with, PayPal, Stripe. We looked at all the varying options and we settled on SumUp.

The reason we chose them was a combination of the rate they charge but more importantly and practically the devices are self sufficient. Hungerford like most clubs is run by a team of volunteers and we don’t have wifi around the ground as I mentioned and we needed devices that would be able to connect themselves using their own 3G connection.

We ask enough of our volunteers, what we couldn’t do was ask them to tether their device.

This also allows us to make sure the monitoring of the data is spot on, we need to make sure that we know exactly how much the bar has taken so we can monitor our margins to see what we need to do there. To make sure the prices are right and our suppliers are right.

We need to monitor gate takings so we’ve got a real handle on who’s coming through and the mix of attendees. We’re also doing a mobile drinks service where fans can have it delivered and we need to monitor the take up of that.

So we’ve got all that stuff we need to do so these devices not only take card payments but give us a great understanding of customer behaviour.

I was going to ask about fees, there will be a % fee with all of these right? 

Yeah, you pay a fee for the handset, that fee can vary from £30 to £100 so not a huge amount but if you want them round the ground it is an investment. We’d certainly think twice about £500 on other things but it is an investment.

You’ve got a fee for the purchase and then there is a fee per transaction, my advice for anyone looking at something like this is to look at your infrastructure, whether they have wifi around the ground.

iZettle requires a mobile device or tablet so to go down that route you’d have to have bought a stock of extra devices. We’d have to label up everything and make sure the right tablet went with the right card reader, that’d have been messy.

If I was to advise any other club, and I am more than happy to speak to anyone, you just need to make sure the tech and equipment is fit for purpose and then look at the fees.

Like with the traditional machines, it’s all very well and good having a card machine but if it’s in the club house your bound to have 10 people queuing to use it and your turnstile operator isn’t going to let someone through to use it.

You need to make sure you get the right tech, and the right amount first to make it worthwhile and then the service behind it is almost irrelevant whether you are paying 3% more or not, that doesn’t really eat in to your margin, what does eat in to your margin is having to turn people away because they can’t pay by card.

Main image: Pat Chambers (left) and Carl Reader by Phil Cannings/Newbury Weekly News

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Tom Canning

Tom is the co-editor of Football in Berkshire. He has played at the lowest possible level of football. In real life Tom works for Reach PLC. Former manager of Binfield Ladies in the Thames Valley Women's League.

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