It started as an idea for a teambuilding activity. I was looking for something our team could do to get us out of the office and experience something new, and horizon-expanding.
As a company we have supported the Big Issue for a while, so when I found out about their Big Sell Off challenge, where companies work with the Big Issue team and vendors to sell the magazine for a day, I thought it would be a great thing to do; an interesting day out, seeing life through the eyes of those less fortunate than us.
I ended the day with a jumble of different feelings that may take me a while to unravel. All I know is that this is a day I won’t ever forget, for many reasons.
When the eight of us congregated in a restaurant in St David’s shopping centre at 9:30am, we were eager to go and peachy keen to find out what the day had in store. Our out of office alerts were on, clients had been warned we were out for the day, and we were in our civvies. There was plenty of light-hearted banter about who would sell the most copies, the kind of tongue-in-cheek chest-beating and teasing that you get in a small team, and that gets us through the stressful moments. I’ll come back to that point.
The lovely Big Issue Cymru team gave us a short presentation on the history of the Big Issue. We found out that it’s been around since 1991 and was inspired when Anita and Gordon Roddick (of Body Shop fame) noticed homeless people in New York selling street papers to make cash. They asked John Bird to help them get something similar off the ground in the UK, and over two decades later the Big Issue offers thousands of vendors across the country the chance to make a secure income.
But it offers so much more than money. It offers the homeless, those at risk of homelessness or those living in poverty the chance to be independent, to stand on their own two feet. It offers dignity and the chance to build self-confidence. It offers a structure to many who lead chaotic lives. It’s a helping hand, a foot up. It’s not a charity, it’s a not for profit social enterprise and every penny they make is ploughed back into helping vendors.
And it’s about so much more than the magazine.
Vendor support teams help vendors with their needs, no matter how complex. Medical care, skills, training, housing – they offer somewhere to turn, a friendly face to trust. When you buy the Big Issue, you’re doing so much more than buying a few music reviews and a great letters page; you’re helping keep a vital support network in place for those who would otherwise have nowhere to turn.
After our briefing session, we were split into two teams who would compete against each other to sell the most copies. We laughed and joked, cheered when someone deemed a dead-cert gift of the gabber was put into one team. We posed for some “let’s do this!” style pictures and headed to the office to meet our partner vendors. So far, so good.
I was paired with Stuart. A press cutting on the office wall told me that he had run the Cardiff 10k a few weeks previously, as had I, so I was relieved we had something to talk about to break the ice. We were allocated our pitches, and headed off for four hours of selling.
For some reason, I felt really optimistic as we arrived at our patch outside Burger King on Queen Street. A great spot! Such footfall! How hard can it be! I thought. I nearly always buy the magazine, so I assumed that most people must do the same. We had 25 copies to shift, and I was already wondering how long it would take to have to head back to the office for extra copies. How naïve I was. We didn’t have to go back once.
Twenty minutes in, I was completely disheartened. I’d asked so many people. After the first few people said no, and many more ignored me completely, my face must have given away what I was thinking. This was going to be much tougher than I thought. A guy appeared from nowhere. “I spotted you from over the street and you’ll never sell any like that love. I’m in sales. You look miserable. You have to smile, open up your body language, sound more confident, speak up!”. He didn’t buy a copy, just melted away into the crowd. How grateful I am for that man. I mentally regrouped, relaxed a little and started to speak a little louder. “Big Issue madam?” “Big Issue Sir?”. I didn’t shift any, but the next ten minutes felt better. I realised that smiling felt a lot better, and smiling at people who said no thanks – although tough at first – made me feel stronger.
And then, my first sale. My heart leapt, and I nearly hugged the elderly lady who stopped and took one. I almost couldn’t believe it. After so many nos (a few hundred? It felt that way anyway) this felt like a huge victory. I asked her name. I’ll never forget Margaret’s face.
And on and on it went. So many more nos. I didn’t mind those. The worst thing was people ignoring me, looking through me, swerving to avoid me. Even laughing at me while I was still in earshot. Or shooting me a filthy look. Or looking me up and down suspiciously, or with disdain. “I’m just trying to sell you a magazine that’s actually really good! You might learn something!” I screamed at them, in my own head. But carried on smiling sweetly, telling them to have a nice day. I quickly realised that it’s really hard to smile constantly when you don’t mean it. Making eye contact with people who take that connection and cruelly throw it back at you. I’ve never felt as vulnerable.
I thought I needed a better strategy for selling, so decided to cherry pick the people who looked most likely to buy, based solely on their appearance. Anybody with a beard, reusable shopping bag, or looked like they bought The Guardian would be a dead cert I decided. I was wrong. My next sale was to a young male student who didn’t look like he had a lot to spare. I hadn’t even asked him, choosing to focus on a well-heeled couple walking behind him. Next lesson: always look beyond the book cover. I decided to widen my focus again.
By now, an hour and a half in, my feet had started to hurt. I went to buy a coffee for Stuart just to stretch my legs a little and check my phone for supportive messages. When I got back, a few generous friends who knew I would be there (the magic of the Twitter!) swung by and picked up a few copies. I’d sold 8, but 6 of those to people I knew. That felt like cheating, but in the spirit of all the cash I made going to Stuart, I figured that was absolutely AOK. I was so pleased to see a few familiar faces that all of a sudden, I saw the value of regular customers to vendors. A friendly face and a few warm words can make all the difference after facing a sea of indifference, or hostility, for so long.
Stuart and I took different sides of our patch, to catch people walking in different directions. When the going got tough we would regroup and have a bit of a chat. He made me laugh out loud every time, with his close-to-the-bone sense of humour and impeccable comic timing. I told him he should be on the stage. If you can do this, stand up comedy would be a walk in the park, I thought.
He told me bits of his story in an honest, matter-of-fact way, and was happy to tell me how tough it is to shift the magazine, even in a prime footfall spot. On a good day, he sells 10 copies. For every £2.50 a punter gives him, £1.25 of that he spends on buying the magazine. So he needs to sell two copies to make £2.50. As I realised how hard it was to make even one sale, I started to think about how often I waste £2.50 on random coffees, impulse purchases, sunflowers for myself….a textbook case of easy come easy go.
Something else I learned is that when people stop and give money but don’t take the magazine, it doesn’t help the vendor. That’s called a ‘drop’, and while people mean well when they do it, when they don’t take a magazine it leaves the vendor with one more to sell. They have targets to hit to keep their pitches. So next time you have a generous “Keep the change” moment, take the copy. Give it to someone else, donate it to a doctor’s waiting room, whatever. Just take it.
The other reason drops are bad is because it’s really important to vendors to feel like they earned their money – in fact, it’s critical to their self-esteem and sense of pride. Giving money makes them feel like they are begging, when in fact they’re doing the exact opposite – using all their mental strength, wherewithal and charm to flog a quality product to as many people as possible.
After a brief lunch break we were back on patch, and things picked up a little, although sales were still painfully slow. My frustration reached a head when a smartly dressed man carrying a rolled up copy of the Daily Mail strode past, clutching a handful of designer shopping bags. When I asked him to buy a copy, he looked me up and down as if I had crawled from under a stone and stabbed up his wife. That’s when the violent fantasies started rolling in my head. My hatred for that man, at that moment, knew no bounds.
My favourite sale of the day was to a guy in a huge gold chain and baseball cap who looked really confused when I approached him. Turns out he was American, and didn’t recognise the magazine. I explained a bit about the Big Issue and as soon as he heard the words “helping the homeless” he dug straight into his pocket, and we got talking. His name was AZ, from Virginia, a hip-hop MC on tour to the UK for the first time. He loved jazz (as do I) so we had a lovely chat, and he threw in a free CD of his latest album, a killer smile and posed for a picture. He’s another one I’ll never forget. Big up AZ, whoever you are.
My most surreal moment of the day came when two dwarves arrived nearby, dressed as elves, on some sort of promotional gig. I asked one to buy a copy and he shot back “Sorry love, I only take small issues”. I was creased up, and this sparked some dwarf banter with Stuart that raised one of the few genuine smiles of the day.
One long hour later, it was time to head back for the debrief. After handing over the cash I’d made (£37.45 over four long, hard hours) I said a warm goodbye to Stuart, and promised to go see him on his regular Sunday patch near my house. I found leaving him really hard. Despite the difficulties of the day, I enjoyed getting to know him, and loved the cheeky sense of humour that he somehow manages to retain despite how bloody dispiriting it must be to do what he does, day in day out.
We had shifted 18 copies between us (14 by me, 4 by Stuart. “It’s because you’re a girl!” he offered) and I was feeling quietly confident. Back at the debrief with the Big Issue team it was revealed that my team collectively shifted the most copies, but it turned out a colleague with all the charm of Bryan Ferry on Viagra pipped me to the post for top salesperson and I came third. My zest for competition had completely disappeared though. The day had become something else altogether for me.
We were asked to give our feedback on the day, and what was interesting is that so many of us shared the same experiences. People ignoring us, avoiding us, giving us dirty looks, saying ignorant things, when all we were trying to do was earn an honest living (even if it was make believe).
All of us realised quickly that there is no such thing as a “typical” Big Issue customer and one of the team was overwhelmed by people’s generosity. I had felt the same about every single sale, but the ratios felt all wrong. All of us humbled, and completely exhausted. We had been out for FOUR HOURS. For ONE DAY.
I left with my head swimming. Exhilarated. Changed.
Why? Because in my day job, when I turn up places, people are generally pleased to see me. They usually want to buy our services or are at least in the market for them. I have a lovely lunch every day. I’m not scared of missing a sale if I pop to the toilet or for a coffee. I live and work in a lovely, warm cocoon.
Nobody ever looks through me.
Nobody feels they have the right to laugh at me (at least within earshot).
Nobody can make me feel like an inferior human being just for trying to make a living.
I sometimes moan about being stressed. We all do right?
Well, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look anybody in my team in the eye and say that again.
Stressed was how Stuart felt at midday when he had only shifted two copies, with not much prospect of more sales on the horizon. I wonder how he would have fared today without my plastic newbie enthusiasm. How he’ll fare tomorrow. Every time it rains, I’ll think of him.
So next time you walk past a Big Issue seller, even if you can’t afford a copy, there is plenty you can do to help make their day that much brighter. Just acknowledge them. Smile. Ask them how their day is going. It’s one of the only jobs I can think of where a polite “no thank you” means more than you will ever know.