Today I sold the Big Issue for an hour. I was a little bit worried about it, but not too bothered. After all, I have spent years in sales, and many hours on exhibition stands, so I’m not worried about getting people’s attention. I had realistic expectations; I knew a lot of people would ignore me but I still expected to sell about 20 newspapers.
My pitch was in Sauchiehall Street, a busy shopping area in the middle of Glasgow. It was 3pm on on a Wednesday afternoon, plenty of people around. It was cold, but it was dry. I wasn’t sure what to wear, but I thought it best to wear my normal work day clothes. After all, I’m not a real vendor, and didn’t want to pretend to be something I’m not. I thought that if people stopped to talk, I could tell them about Vendor Week and why I was supporting it, then that would be a good result. (Vendor Week is an international programme of events, activities and social media action that celebrates street paper vendors and challenges perceptions of poverty and homelessness.)
There were five of us in my time slot; myself, two men representing other third sector organisations and two members of the cast of Burnistoun, and we got a briefing from Robert, a regular vendor, before we started selling in pitches along the street. I didn’t know what a typical Big Issue buyer might look like, but I smiled and tried to catch the eye of anyone that came reasonably close to me. “Would you like to buy a Big Issue?” Most people gently shook their head, some said a quiet ‘no thanks’ as they walked by.
It took about 5 minutes to get my first sale, from a young smartly dressed guy who was with a female friend. He later tweeted about it, thank you very much @sppbest
That was it for about twenty minutes. Then:
- an middle aged man bought a paper from me (yippee)
- and another gave me some change
- another middle aged man came up and talked to me, saying I didn’t look like a real vendor but he had read about Vendor Week in the paper and appreciated what I was doing. He didn’t buy a paper though, but he said he’d already bought one and I believed him
- a young woman who had passed by earlier ran back to give me £5, said she didn’t want a paper but I should use it to ‘go and buy a cup of tea or something’, then rushed off again to join her friends before I could talk to her
- a woman brushed me off, saying she couldn’t read
- a wee wifey asked if I was a star (she had come from the direction of the Burnistoun people)
- a well dressed man stopped when I asked him to buy a Big Issue, told me he gave to charity, and that he used to be homeless (but he wouldn’t buy a paper)
So I spent an hour in the street, selling a good product I believe in, and I sold two papers. One of the other ‘anonymous’ volunteers sold three, but the Burnistoun guys sold 33 between them, and the Chvrches singer Lauren Mayberry apparently had people queuing to buy one from her!
It was a real eye opener to me. I was smartly dressed, I smiled a lot, I asked a lot of people to buy from me, very politely. I sold 2 papers in an hour which, if I had bought them to resell, would made me a profit of £2.50 in one hour. Its not exactly a living wage and if I had to that regularly, for hours everyday, it would be very hard indeed to keep myself motivated.
Robert, my vendor mentor, said that he would expect to sell around 2-3 papers an hour himself, in his good pitch by Central Station (Gordon Street exit, say hello and buy a paper from him). He said that anyone can find themselves homeless, and that it was just as important for people to talk to the vendors and get to know about them and how they ended up on the streets. He is a lovely, friendly Mancunian, in Glasgow to be closer to his family. I’d like to have known more about him but we mainly spoke about selling the Big Issue. I’ll stop by his pitch and talk to him again soon.
So what did I learn from this experience?
- far fewer people bought a paper from me than I expected
- (I am very naive)
- being outside in the cold weather wasn’t too bad, but the lack of sales was soul-destroying
- people saw the tabard, not the person
- people did acknowledge me when I caught their eye, they were polite but disengaged
- celebrities get attention (and sales!)
- the girl that gave me the £5 really warmed my heart (but I wished she had taken a paper to read)
- I’m very proud of my home city of Glasgow for having so many more Vendor Week volunteers than any other participating UK city
- you cannot make a good living selling the Big Issue but if you stick it out, you have an amazing work ethic
- I am very fortunate indeed to have a comfortable life
In conclusion, if you buy a Big Issue, you will not solve homelessness. If you read it, however, you will learn much more about the issues that homeless people face, and you may become more compassionate towards the homeless. You will also read some fantastic articles about important social issues that many mainstream newspapers barely touch, as well as celebrity interviews and film and music reviews.
So please start buying the Big Issue now! Don’t walk on by
…and (pretty please??) sponsor me to help the INSP continue their great job of supporting the homeless to get a ‘hand up, not a hand out’