Gambling on hope
As college students head back to classes with a reduced HOPE scholarship, The Times takes a look at the finances of that scholarship, the state's pre-kindergarten program and the Georgia lottery that funds them.
Today: The Georgia Lottery Corp. isn't immune to budget cuts and neither are lottery players.
Coming Tuesday: For some, playing the lottery pays off. For others, the game is a drain on already small paychecks.
At Flowery Branch Convenience on Spout Springs Road, early morning customers come in for three things — coffee, a newspaper and a lottery ticket.
"There's this one guy who comes in and gets a newspaper, cigarettes and his two tickets," owner Suraiya Jalali said.
"There's a lot of the same customers who come in and buy two or three tickets, or I've got some people who just scratch $20 and $10 tickets."
Cash Blast, various types of Jumbo Bucks and any new ticket are usually the first to sell.
More than $45 billion in ticket sales were reported statewide from when the lottery began through the end of fiscal year 2011, according to statistics from the Georgia Lottery Corp.
In 2010 alone, Hall County lottery vendors sold about $64 million in tickets. Since the Georgia Lottery began in 1994, area retailers sold more than $637 million in tickets.
But with the economic slump, even lottery ticket sales are suffering.
"They have dwindled down. There's a few factors — one was I guess the economy, everyone's got less money to play," said AJ Adajania, owner of Wee Willy's in Gainesville.
Jalali said regardless of how sales were this year compared to last, her myriad games bring customers to the Spout Springs Road store.
"If this is not here, people aren't attracted," she said. "They can anywhere get coffee and a snack."
The Georgia Lottery has had 16 draw games since it started and nearly 900 instant win games. The draw games include Cash 3 with a top prize of $500 and Millionaire Raffle, which gave winners $1 million.
Other games in this category include Powerball, Win for Life and KENO!.
Instant games run the gamut — holiday games such as Shamrock Green and New Year's Bonus, games based on superstition like Sizzling Red 7's and year-round favorites such as Jumbo Bucks and Win for Life. Top prizes on these range anywhere from $500 to $5 million.
"We are continually evaluating our product mix," said Kimberly Starks, media relations specialist with the Georgia Lottery Corp. "We look at the types of games that would be of interest to our players. We produce tickets for entertainment. ... We're always looking for new tickets and new draw games."
Starks said in 2011, the lottery introduced 54 new games. Duration of games is sometimes dependent on popularity and timeliness; holiday games won't stick around nearly as long as the Jumbo Bucks games.
Adajania said his most popular tickets are any Jumbo variety as well as some of the pricier tickets with bigger payouts, such as Super Millions, Georgia Lottery Black and Cash Blast.
"We sell more of the scratch-offs. The biggest parts are the $10 and the $20 tickets and the Classic Jumbos which are $2," said Lisa Simmons, a cashier at Petrofast Food Store in Gainesville. "Sometimes the newer tickets bring in more money."
At the end of every day, lottery vendors check the number on the last scratch-off ticket for each game and subtract it from that of the previous day. The difference is the number of tickets sold. A machine reports the number of Mega Millions, Fantasy Five, KENO! and other such tickets sold. Whatever the store sells and however much is paid out from the location should balance on the reports.
"I have (Jalali) pick me one, a $10 winner," said Richard Goforth, a frequent customer at Flowery Branch Convenience. "Every couple of days I come in and get one or two."
Goforth started playing when the lottery began. He said he spends between $30 and $40 a week on lottery tickets and won several $100 prizes, but he's still waiting on the big one.
For many of her customers, Jalali said, "lottery is the last hope."
The same is true of Simmons' store.
"Sometimes we can sell a pretty good bit. It's hard to determine how many. We used to sell more than what we do now I guess because of the economy being a little bit bad," Simmons said.
She said some days the store sold 100 or more tickets.
"I think it's because we have a lot of older people that come in here. I think they're more into buying them than a lot of younger ones," she said.
Starks was unsure if lottery officials discussed sales options such as raising ticket prices as ways to increase sales.
Jalali said higher ticket prices "won't hurt too much" but might affect how quickly people are willing to spend their leftover change on scratch-off tickets.
"When the change is left they have $1, they'll say, ‘Give me a $1 ticket,'" she said. "That way we'll have all their money instead of giving cash back to them. So saying $2 they will definitely think."
If the Georgia Lottery Corp. chooses to raise ticket prices to increase sales, Simmons said she thinks smaller tickets will be affected.
"I believe it would because a lot of people come in just buying the smaller tickets because they are just $1," she said.
Adajania carries fewer varieties of $1 tickets because they don't sell as well with his customers.
"The winning amount's a lot less on those. I think the top dollar ticket right now that we have is $10,000 on the Jumbos," he said. "People don't like to play those. I mean, in 18 years I've sold one ticket for $10,000 on dollar tickets."
He's had more winners on the bigger tickets. In fact, Adajania said, it might be good for business if the Georgia Lottery got rid of $1 tickets by increasing prices. Customers would have to pay more to play more.
Gainesville resident Linda Anderson said if ticket prices rose, she'd stop buying cold turkey.
"To me, they just don't put enough winners on them anymore," she said. "Years ago the tickets used to be real fun. But not anymore. It's not really fun to play."