My reflections on an hour spent doing the #BigSell with The Big Issue North.
I had the opportunity to volunteer an hour last week to experience the working life of a Big Issue seller in the city, by trying to sell copies of the magazines myself. I was paired up with experienced vendor Andy, by Anna from the Big Issue North. Andy was a friendly face I recognised from selling the magazine over many years, previously outside Waitrose on Ecclesall Road, and more recently on several city centre pitches. He greeted me with a big smile and cheery hello and proceeded to tell me all his sales tips, making me feel completely at ease, before he left me to it, dressed in a very fetching official Big Issue tabard, on his prime pitch outside John Lewis.
Over the course of the next hour I managed to sell 5 copies of the magazine, which Andy was very pleased about when he returned from his well-earned coffee break, as he got to keep all of the profits! Once my hour was up I thanked Andy for his time, handed back my tabard and headed off, leaving him to reclaim his pitch and hopefully make even more sales.
So, on reflection, what did I learn from my experience?
- Its really hard work, especially in the winter. Cold, relentless, hard work. I only did an hour, but Andy told me that he used to work 10 hour days. That’s a very long time for anybody to be stood around, outside, just waiting for customers to come past you.
- The huge majority of people I spoke to (mainly women, but some men too) responded with a ‘hello’ and a smile. This was great, and helped to pass the time, as there was a steady flow of customers going in and out of John Lewis on the morning in question. It was easy for me to remain positive and friendly for an hour, but I’m not sure if I’d have been able to remain as upbeat several hours in. And for a vendor to make enough money to support themselves and any family, they need to keep cheery and polite for hours on end. For every sale of the magazine, £1.25 goes back to the Big Issue to cover production costs, so most sales earn the vendor just £1.25.
- The people who bought magazines were genuinely lovely. I explained that I was a guest seller and was doing it to gain an insight into what its like to be a Big Issue vendor. They all said really complementary things about vendors and the magazine; that vendors were always polite; that they bought the magazine because they appreciated that the vendor was doing something positive to turn their life around (working, not begging); that even when they didn’t buy the magazine, the vendor always wished them well; and that there were always interesting articles in the magazine. All of them were regular customers, who bought the magazine most weeks.
- On the flip side, I never realised how some people would go so far out of their way to avoid walking past a Big Issue seller. Several people noticed me, then changed direction to swerve around me, avoiding eye contact at all costs, and ignoring my friendly ‘hello’. I was conscious not to pressure people into buying the magazine by blocking their path, and didn’t walk forwards to people, but waited for them to approach me, but still I was genuinely shocked by how some people reacted when they saw me, almost recoiling in horror. A friend came to support me by buying a copy, and she too was appalled by how ignorant a small minority of passers by were. There must be very few other situations where you speak to people and they completely blank you, ignoring your greeting, looking past you, or turning their heads to avoid looking at you. Like you aren’t there, like you don’t matter, like you are nothing.
I spoke to my vendor Andy, and Anna from the Big Issue afterwards, and explained what I’d learned and Andy commented that he thought he’d become desensitised to the way people could react after so many years, and that’s understandable, yet incredibly sad. He’s become used to people blanking him and being rude and started to accept it as the norm, and how he expects to be treated. That has got to change. And Andy said that the rude people are the ones that stick with you after your shift has ended, which is a real shame, as lots of lovely people stopped to chat. But day after day experiencing people making you feel insignificant has got to affect your mental health in a negative way.
I’m not saying you should always buy the Big Issue; I don’t do that myself. But saying ‘hello’ costs nothing, and yet makes such a difference. Vendors are working, not begging, and that’s to be applauded. They are getting up early with no promise of a definite pitch, buying the magazines in advance, so having to budget in order to keep working and earning. Their work is then standing on a street for hours on end, not daring to leave their pitch for fear of losing sales, remaining upbeat and positive all day long, despite often being blanked by passers by. Then getting up again the next day for more of the same.
Just say ‘hello’, that’s all!
Dedicating this post to my vendor, Andy, for taking the time to meet with me, pass on his advice and show me the ropes. Also to Anna from the Big Issue for making all of the arrangements – thank you both!
All photos, courtesy of Anna Manetta-Stark.