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Why buy a Big Issue? Because selling it is bloody hard work

There are tough gigs but few tougher than that of The Big Issue street vendor, as Vivienne Skinner discovered at she donned the flouro vest for International Vendor Week.

Big Issue

There are tough jobs. And then there is selling The Big Issue. At lunchtime. Mid-summer. With a junk shop spruiker competing for my patch of pavement.

Bear with me while I channel Gen Y: OMG it was hard.

From the moment I arrived, brimming with confidence as I donned the red Big Issue cap and the fluoro Big Issue vest, my bundle of mags in my hand and waited for the queue of buyers to form to the tragic moment an hour-and-a-half later when I called it quits, I sold one magazine. That’s right, folks, I stood for an hour-and-a-half on George Street in the middle of Sydney on a mid-summer day and sold one $6 magazine. One. (Thank you to that lady with the kind grey eyes and the gentle heart, who fossicked for ages until she’d counted out my cash — I love you, and I have spoken to God and there is a place reserved for you right beside him in heaven on that day, many decades into the future, when you head his way.)

For those who don’t know, this week is International Vendor Week, when the spotlight shines on those who make their living selling The Big Issue on street corners. It is the week when a few dozen Sydney CEOs stand alongside regular vendors and get a feel for what a cinch it is to sell The Big Issue. As the CEO of a modest-sized company and a long-time supporter of The Big Issue, I was happy to oblige. It couldn’t be that hard.

My partner was Mick, a lean, scrubbed, gingery middle-aged man who sleeps rough. He is hoping to find regular accommodation and has a mate who reckons he can find them something that avoids the long government housing queue. In the meantime, he sleeps where he can, and I am impressed at how well he cares for himself in the absence of an ensuite. He’s been selling The Big Issue since 2006 and loves his job. It gives him structure, human contact and cash in his pocket.

Our spot outside Wynyard Station was not Mick’s (or my) regular spot, and it became clear as time passed that success at this business depends on one giant factor: constancy. Selling always in the same location where you can build up regulars, nearby workers who get to know you a little, get used to your presence. The regular “0wner” of our spot didn’t want to be involved with the CEO event, so Mick and I were assigned it instead. The result? No one recognised us, there was no “care” factor, and everyone just walked on. One young woman arrived with a bag of hot chips for the regular seller — she does this every day — and was terribly concerned to find her gone. Mick got them instead.

Most people probably don’t realise that selling The Big Issue is a genuine micro business. It’s not charity. Mick must buy all his magazines before his shift. He then keeps half the cover price — that is, $3 per sale. Occasionally he’ll sell 40 in a day, though usually much fewer. Apparently vendors have more success in Melbourne, perhaps because the magazine has been around there for longer.

The motto of The Big Issue is “helping people help themselves”, and it indeed gives thousands of rough sleepers a living, a leg up into the rental market, and the chance to chat to the rest of us. And it is a great read — this issue Leonardo DiCaprio and The Wolf of Wall Street jostle for space with what’s wrong with Facebook and images by the world’s best wildlife photographers.

By the end of my shift, my feet ached and I was hot, hungry and thirsty. But even though it had been a dud sale day, I hadn’t wasted my time. Meeting stoic Mick and watching his unflagging persistence was an inspiration. As I undid the vest and handed him back all my mags, minus one, I turned my eyes heavenward once again and offered a silent word of thanks that I don’t make my living as a street vendor.

So if you see Mick and his mates this week, or any week, please buy a magazine and give them the chance to help themselves. I guarantee, there’s no tougher job in town.

8
  • 1
    Matt Hardin
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Instead of selling Big Issues and grandstanding bot how tough it all is, perhaps Australia’s CEOs and management class could:

    -divert productivity gains to increased employment rather than enormous executive salaries and obscene profits;
    -take less money for themselves and leave more money to employ locals instead of off shoring jobs and/or
    -stop employing accountants to minimise their tax and allow government services to be adequately funded.

    By the way what happened to the regular vendor for that site if consistency is a big factor in sales? Was he compensated for losing a day’s pay so a CEO could feel good about herself?

  • 2
    Adeline Teoh
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Consistency is a big factor for me because I like to stop for a chat, but it also means I sometimes walk by vendors who are new to the pitch.

    @Matt The author already said the regular vendor didn’t want to be involved. I often buy from her (or Ed who sells on Wynyard St) and she is quite shy. It might’ve been a better exercise if Vivienne joined a vendor at their usual spot, but there’s no need to be cynical and nasty about it.

  • 3
    Matt Hardin
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I read the article and understood that that the regular vendor did not want to be involved. My point is that she was displaced for a day for a publicity exercise and I want to know if she was compensated. For that day her sales were likely to be significantly lower. She may have lost 20% of her income for the week for a publicity exercise.

    How would you feel as an employee or franchisee to be docked 20% of your pay for a week so they could advertise?

    @Adeline I really don’t know what you mean by nasty and cynical unless you think that that sharing the wealth generated in Australia’s economic boom fairly would probably do more good than standing in the sun for 90 minutes and then musing how the poor have it tough.

  • 4
    Tarquin Biscuitbarrel
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Just nauseating.

  • 5
    Adeline Teoh
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    @Matt I’m not disputing your points about diverting productivity gains etc. I agree with them. But I felt your final rhetorical question was cynical in that you assumed that Vivienne was only doing it to “feel good about herself” and it bordered on nasty to make that the focus when the piece is clearly trying to communicate the efforts of street paper vendors in Australia from someone who has access to the general media and can describe it from a non-vendor perspective. The Big Issue contains articles about vendors and vendor experiences and the real shame is that these aren’t shared in the broader media. I don’t think dumping on the author or on CEOs in general in this context is warranted.

    I was interested to read: “One young woman arrived with a bag of hot chips for the regular seller — she does this every day — and was terribly concerned to find her gone” because I know the vendor is not there every day. As you may have picked up, some people don’t buy from sellers who aren’t their regular vendors, so the regular vendor would not have missed out on those sales, the other buyers can buy from any number of sellers along George St and in the Sydney CBD and the money would go to vendors who are just as marginalised, like Mick.

  • 6
    Matt Hardin
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    @ Adeline The article clearly stated that familiarity with the vendor was important:

    Our spot outside Wynyard Station was not Mick’s (or my) regular spot, and it became clear as time passed that success at this business depends on one giant factor: constancy. Selling always in the same location where you can build up regulars, nearby workers who get to know you a little, get used to your presence.

    but now you suggest that it is not as important:

    [so the regular vendor would not have missed out on those sales,].

    Which is it? What percentage of the meagre funds that the regular seller earns each day were lost? Was she compensated?

    As for [dumping on the author or on CEOs in general] are you seriously trying to say that the problems that the management class caused through the policies they advocate are off set by standing in the street for 90 minutes and telling everyone how tough it is to be homeless? Or does an hour and a half in the sun make it all OK?

    Articles and exercises like this are what allows the rich to continue to shaft the poor but not feel so bad about it. The CEOs are the cynics - not me.

    BTW I would imagine that poor old Mick earned less that day than he usually would, not being in his usual spot. So two of our poorest copping it on the chin.

  • 7
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I agree 100% with the three points made by Matt Hardin in post #1.

    The Big Issue needs more public awareness, some still don’t know about the commendable Big Issue ethos. Someone I knew used to give the vendors a wide berth as they imagined communist propaganda was being dispensed.

  • 8
    Adeline Teoh
    Posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    @Matt I did not say the pitch was not important, I clearly said it *was* and that I—for better or worse—practice ‘vendor discrimination’ where I prefer to buy from one of my two regular vendors.

    When I wrote “so the regular vendor would not have missed out on those sales”, I meant to establish that regular customers would not have bought from Mick if they were regular customers of Antonia, who usually sells in that pitch. The loser here might have been Mick, not Antonia, as you rightly surmise at the end of your comment. Mick actually has a different pitch down the road and I’m as baffled as you are as to why Mick and Vivienne didn’t sell there for this story.

    are you seriously trying to say that the problems that the management class caused through the policies they advocate are off set by standing in the street for 90 minutes and telling everyone how tough it is to be homeless? Or does an hour and a half in the sun make it all OK?]

    Hell no. I’m not even sure where you got that idea from.

    My points again:
    —Vivienne is promoting The Big Issue to a wider audience by writing this. She is informing people of what it is and its mission, and encouraging people to buy it. I think this is a good thing.
    —You are dismissing Vivienne as a symbol of a (or maybe an actual) big corporate baddie trying to look good. I think you don’t know enough about Vivienne to say this. Your general comments about CEOs are probably sound but I’m not sure why you’ve decided to pick on this article, which has a net positive result (in that more people know about The Big Issue) to voice these.
    —I do not think Vivienne is kidding herself that she knows what it is like to be homeless or that she is an instant saint for doing this. She is raising awareness of how difficult it is to sell a magazine (that happens to help marginalised people) because she is a “a long-time supporter” of the magazine. This promotional exercise is no different to The Big Issue’s celebrity vendor campaign, but for the corporate set.

    Articles and exercises like this are what allows the rich to continue to shaft the poor but not feel so bad about it.

    Are you seriously saying that all rich people are so two-dimensional that they believe a donation here and some volunteer work there will make up for inequality? For people who genuinely want to do something, the work is never finished and they do what they can. Sometimes that’s fixing things in their own realm of influence, including implementing fair work policies (and maybe Vivienne has already done that in her organisation, have you checked?), but sometimes it’s trying to help out an enterprise in a series of small ways like buying The Big Issue, trying to sell The Big Issue and writing about the experience as a lever to help promote the publication on a national website.

    It’s convincing the people who don’t want to do something about inequality that is the problem. I feel your remarks unfairly picked on Vivienne, and devalued the reason for this article, which was to promote The Big Issue and the plight of the vendors selling it.

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