A hundred baht and a dream

An online lottery service has put the squeeze on the ubiquitous local vendor, leaving many with no means to make a living

A customer, right, buys a compendium of winning numbers.

Before a lucky draw this week, a middle-aged woman stared intently at a stall in front of Bangkok's shopping mall. She prayed and plucked three lottery tickets, 100 baht each, out of endless possibilities. "I hope you will win the prize," Sudta Tamnudee, a vendor, told her first customer.

She has sold lottery tickets for two months to supplement her income. Born in Ubon Ratchathani, she moved to Bangkok many decades ago. Since then, she has been a caregiver, but the loss of her elderly patient caused a wage cut. Still, her employer has asked her to look after a child and a cat.

Her sales, however, have tumbled since the government launched the online lottery service to tackle the issue of overpricing early this month. Around 5 million digital tickets were sold to 1.2 million buyers. Still, some customers have bought from her for higher prices. "Maybe they want to own paper tickets or they don't have smartphones," she guessed.

Many lottery vendors are facing intense competition -- some even anticipate job extinction -- though the government denies this. The first phase of the scheme may not instantly resolve the issue of overpricing, but it will pave the way for direct purchase and make their jobs vanish.

The government offers digital lottery tickets via the Pao Tang mobile application.

"They restore my morale," said Thongmuan Kanpakdee, a vendor, while pointing to talismans, including yantra, displayed at her stall for prosperity. She said her sales have dropped by half because people can now buy cheaper digital tickets. She sees "a tough road ahead" when they are more comfortable using digital technology.

"I can't go less because yeepua (middlemen) charge me over 90 baht. More digital tickets will be rolled out. This is just the first draw. Vendors like me will gradually vanish," she said, with resignation. "I am too old to start a new job. I will return my hometown and live with my parents."

After breaking up with her husband, she left Chai Nat for Bangkok three decades ago. She has been a vendor her entire life because she is unable to get other jobs. She used to sell food and drink in Chatuchak Park, but the coronavirus pandemic forced her to ply her luck as a lottery vendor for two years.

"Initially, it was very good. Beginner's luck, I guess," she said. "I have applied for a quota of 500 lottery tickets, but haven't got any response. If vendors can buy them for the cost price of 70.40 baht, we can sell them for the legal price of 80 baht. In fact, we can make higher profits [9.60 baht] and sell them better," she said.

Meanwhile, Kanjarat Deenonpo, a vendor, said she will wait and see. Her sales have dwindled by half, but customers often approach her for popular numbers, which explains why they are more expensive because vendors must get them from other stalls or wholesale markets.

"Customers follow spiritual leaders who predict winning numbers. When the draw is around the corner, demand for them will increase. If you want to buy cheaply, don't follow any trends," she said.

Thanakorn Komrit, secretary-general of the Stop Gambling Foundation, said the chronic problem of overpriced lottery tickets results from the fact that those who are given quotas sell them to middlemen, who resell them to individuals for higher prices.

"It is out of control because the Government Lottery Office (GLO) doesn't know the number of unregistered sellers who buy lottery tickets from wholesale markets," he said.

The GLO is following a road map for resolving the issue. It is increasing the number of authorised stalls nationwide to ensure that those who have no access to digital technology can buy lottery tickets for 80 baht. It is accepting an application for the advance purchase booking scheme and offering the online lottery service.

A vendor, left, arranges lottery tickets as a customer, right, looks for winning numbers.

Under the current model, 100 million lottery tickets are distributed in each draw via dealership (31 million) and advance purchase booking (69 million). Authorities recently seized overpriced lottery tickets from numerous platforms and resold them for 80 baht via the online lottery scheme.

Thanakorn said the first phase of the campaign is still far from a success. The government should increase the number of digital lottery tickets, which will impact the entire chain of middlemen, retailers, and vendors. If it is implemented on a full scale, they will be made redundant because customers can buy direct from the government's platform.

"Like other industries, technology is disrupting them. It will take such course," he said. "The government should prepare for this transition. It will save manufacturing and logistics costs, which can be used to support the professional development of vulnerable groups who normally earn income from lottery sales."

However, the online lottery service may come at a price. Pratuangwut Limrossukon, president of the Free Lottery Dealer Club of Thailand, warned that the government's push for digital lottery will exacerbate the problem of gambling, such as huay tip (imaginary lottery), which is a digital ticket purchased on unauthorised platforms. A real ticket is duplicated and sold to many customers.

"It is not the government's digital lottery, but huay tip that has impacted our sales. While big retailers will reward those who win prizes, small retailers will get away. It will have a negative influence on young people," he said. "Nevertheless, people enjoy taking a chance for their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is in our genes."

Anti-gambling officials and advocates are campaigning for underage sale prevention. According to last year's survey by the Centre for Gambling Studies at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Economics, 700,000 children and youths under the age of 20 bought lottery tickets.

Kanjarat said people will continue to buy lottery tickets, in whatever form and at whatever price. "They give us hope. Even a seller like me takes a risk. Who knows? Anything can happen," she said, before sharing her brother's photo of his stall. "His customer bought three tickets and hit the jackpot of 18 million baht. I wish I got it."

Sudta never plays for money because she is not a lucky person. Still, she harbours dream of hitting the jackpot. "I want to get rich to pay off my debts, but I'm too afraid to buy lottery tickets. I can't stand losing money. But if I knew the winning number, I wouldn't deny it," she said.

"What about you? Would you like to take a risk?," she asked.

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