When the UK-wide lockdown was announced in March 2020, overnight more than 1,000 Big Issue vendors were suddenly unable to sell the magazine on their pitches. Losing all income – and experiencing the social support network of customers and friends while selling on their pitches – was a terrible blow. Just as high streets were impacted, and small businesses relying on face-to-face customer contact were disproportionately affected financially by the pandemic as customers in lockdown turned to online retail, equally it had an enormous impact on Big Issue sellers.
The isolation for many vendors was as bad as having lost their income. “In lockdown I had nothing to do, no one to see. I was on my own, missing everyone at my pitch,” explains vendor Dave Martin, who has sold the magazine in London for nine years. “It’s not just about selling the magazine on your pitch, it’s about having a laugh and the chit-chat, which I missed.”
Dave, 59, normally sells the magazine on his bustling pitch at Tesco, Brook Green, Hammersmith. He tried his best to fill the long days playing online Scrabble, doing a DIY project to turn a walk-in cupboard into a little studio to work on his art and taking part in an art college class online. He also tried to get out for a walk every day. But he knew his customers missed him as much as he did them.
“I started a little journal, diary sort of thing, writing things down every day. But there were a couple of days I felt really low, you know. I was told by a friend ‘people are asking how are you, where have you been’ and I wanted to tell them I was alright. But I couldn’t.”
“It was a devastating moment for both the vendors and the teams. Not only were vendors no longer able to earn an income through the sale of the magazine, they were also no longer able to communicate with the communities that they sell within,” recalls Beth Thomas, head of partnerships and programmes at The Big Issue. “Vendors build a real rapport with their regular customers and the local businesses and community where they sell the magazine, and for some this can be their only contact with other people.
“Lockdown meant that vendors lost their income and their community overnight. For the teams, this was a huge blow. Everyone knows how important the magazine is to our vendors to enable them to earn an income, develop their skills and confidence and feel part of a community, and this was being stopped – immediately. People were very concerned for vendor welfare and instantly kicked into action to provide as much support as physically possible while in lockdown.”
With the magazine being sold through alternative methods – subscriptions, supermarkets, newsagents and a digital version on The Big Issue UK app, through Google Play and the App Store – it meant that our frontline teams were able to keep in touch with vendors regularly and keep them going. Through the first and second lockdowns, more than £1m in support was distributed to vendors.
The fast and secure payments of cashless transactions make it easier to maintain social distancingBeth Thomas, The Big Issue head of partnerships and programmes
“During each lockdown, the frontline team worked tirelessly with vendors to provide remote support,” explains Beth. Tailored and bespoke support responded to specific needs, all vendors were provided with financial grants and supermarket vouchers. And staff were also a vital listening ear to those vendors who have been completely isolated during the pandemic.
“Without us calling they would not have heard from anyone during lockdown,” she says. “We have also provided support to vendors with housing issues, rent arrears, and other serious and urgent challenges. As well as many of the challenges that most have us faced, like boredom and homeschooling, for example! With this in mind, we helped vendors to purchase a number of items from colouring books to laptops – my favourite request was a rowing machine!”
Another important element of the regular engagement between frontline staff and vendors was supporting them to return to selling, ensuring they understood the rules around social distancing, the new measures being introduced in relation to buying magazines from Big Issue distribution points and selling on their pitch to their customers. All vendors were (and still are) provided with PPE.
And – crucially – conversations were started with vendors around going cashless. Before the pandemic people were already increasingly turning to cashless transactions in the UK. And over the last year paying by tapping our cards or using our phones became rapidly just how we go about our day. Ditching cash altogether, some major retailers now accept only card payments.
“The pandemic has only accelerated the need for vendors to accept cashless payments and we began a lot of this work with some vendors whilst still in lockdown,” Beth says. “This included helping vendors to obtain identification (which was extremely tricky at times) as well as access a bank account.”
She admits that initially, quite a few vendors were reluctant to take the step to cashless. “This was for a number of reasons, from fear of technology to a sense that it wouldn’t really be needed for them and their customers.
“However, the impact of the pandemic really changed the thinking for many vendors. With the acceleration of cashless UK-wide as a result of social distancing and responses to the pandemic and the way in which people interact and participate in consumerism, many of those reluctant vendors could see the need and took the step.”
Because of the pandemic, card sales increased a lot.Dave Martin, Big Issue seller
Before March 2020, 193 Big Issue vendors were offering cashless payments. That number is now 594 and rising. And the results are tangible: vendors who offer cashless earn an average of 30 per cent more than non-cashless – and that is only likely to increase as the already rapid pace of cashless adoption accelerates with the UK now reopening for business.
Dave was one of the earliest vendors to go cashless, so was aware of the benefits of offering contactless sales even before the pandemic. “People were paying more by card before the pandemic, and I saw The Big Issue was getting vendors getting Zettle card readers to help their sales,” he says.
“The Big Issue helped me out, setting up my bank account and I signed up with Zettle. And it definitely helped my sales. And because of the pandemic, card sales increased a lot.”
The ability to swiftly help our vendors to make the switch to cashless is thanks to The Big Issue’s well-established relationship with Zettle, a PayPal company.
“We’ve been a proud supporter of The Big Issue for years and with the impact of the pandemic, our joint commitment to creating a more financially inclusive society has never been more important than it is today,” says Jacob de Geer, Vice President, Small Business Products and Zettle at PayPal.
The fast and secure payments of cashless transactions make it easier to maintain social distancing. As Dave explains, some customers are nervous about handling cash (although the risk has been shown to be minimal); some have simply realised that cashless transactions are quicker and easier, so have got out of the habit of using cash.
“I call it ‘Covid reasons’ – people shop less regular, they shop online, or are just afraid to come out. You get a lot of people who don’t engage any more, withdraw into themselves.
“People don’t use cash these days, and they are often in a rush – if they know they can pay cashless they know it’s going to be quick and it’s going to be secure as well,” adds Dave.
Vendors have also recently started to offer touch-free PayPal QR Code payments that are integrated into their Zettle point-of-sale app, which is an even quicker process, taking just seconds.
Customers hold their phone over the PayPal QR Code on a vendor’s phone and it instantly pays for the magazine out of their PayPal account. “I downloaded the Zettle app, and you just click on there, get a PayPal QR Code, the customer pays using their phone – it’s very quick, simple and secure. You know there’ll be no problems.”
Some vendors, especially those more reluctant to use technology, need more support, coaching and encouragement to take the step into going cashless. But as confidence grows among vendors heading back to their pitches, there is a new sense of energy and optimism, and willingness to try it out.
And, explains Beth, for some vendors taking that brave step is already paying off big time: “Only yesterday I heard about a vendor who has really struggled with cashless due to his lack of confidence around technology and hasn’t really managed to make it work previously.
“He sold 25 magazines yesterday and of those, 23 were through their Zettle card reader. He was absolutely thrilled and so were the team who have worked so hard to support him to get there. Perseverance on his part and that of the team has really paid off.”
I noticed people saying they don’t carry cash any more because of Covid, they’d rather just do a tap than touch your hand and give you money.Paddy, Big Issue vendor
“The global pandemic has disproportionately impacted small businesses and there’s been a historic shift in consumer behaviour towards digital-first,” says Jacob de Geer. “As the UK begins to open back up, having access to digital payment methods is key and we want to make sure The Big Issue’s vendors have the tools they need to ensure they never miss a sale. Whether they’re using our Zettle reader or PayPal QR Codes, they can accept secure contactless payments in seconds.”
And the demand from customers is unequivocal. Chris Falchi-Stead, head of sales and operations for The Big Issue, says: “Vendors are reporting across the board that their customers are carrying less and less cash, and we are seeing in many cases that the majority of sales are now done by contactless. We are continuing to do all we can to ensure that all our vendors are able to accept cashless payments in conjunction with our partnership with Zettle.”
Paddy Keenan, who sells the magazine in London, says it’s easy for vendors to get set up with a card reader: “I like the card reader, I should have had it from the very start when they were available. It took about 15 or 20 minutes to get it set up when I went to get it from The Big Issue.”
And Paddy has seen results from being able to offer cashless payments. “Before, when I never had the machine, people would say ‘if you had a machine I’d buy a copy from you’. Since I had the machine sales are much better now. And when you get the machine out, it’s cleaner as well.
“I noticed people saying they don’t carry cash any more because of Covid, they’d rather just do a tap than touch your hand and give you money. I think it’s a lot better. I’ve got a bank account and the money goes directly into my account,” he adds.
The work that has already been done on financial and digital inclusion has shown how much potential there is for The Big Issue to work with PayPal and Zettle to help our vendors emerge even stronger after the pandemic, and face the future with confidence and a renewed sense of purpose and positivity.
Dave sums it up: “Selling The Big Issue gives you self-esteem, self-respect. It makes you feel good that you’re going out and earning, you’re actually paying your way.”
For Dave, that includes ways to grow sales of his art as well as growing sales of the magazine. Last March, just before lockdown, his artwork was displayed in London’s prestigious Jealous Gallery in an exhibition featuring Ben Eine, Charming Baker and Shepard Fairey. As the world reopens Dave now has a new exhibition in the offing at an estate agent’s office near his pitch.
Current vacancies...Search jobs
“It’s a two-way thing, The Big Issue and the art – I can’t do one without the other,” says Dave. “I started in 2016 doing my art, through The Big Issue. When I create a new piece and when people say they like it, it makes me feel good.”
His abstract collage art (“simple shapes and colours”) can be viewed and bought on his website – artbydavemartin.com – and also on his shop on bigcartel.com.
And his reputation is growing. While Dave was being filmed chatting for our new video about going cashless, a customer who lives across the Green came over to enthuse about his work, telling us proudly that one of Dave’s pieces hangs in his hallway.
The warmth expressed by so many people as Dave returned to his pitch shows just how important that connection between Big Issue vendors and their communities is. While we filmed Dave discussing going cashless, many stopped to chat, buy a magazine, show off a new haircut fresh from the salon. And even their dogs are clearly pleased to see him, wagging their tails and gazing up lovingly at Dave while he chats away.
For Big Issue vendors, selling the magazine is much more than simply a transaction. And the importance of making sales as easy and comfortable as possible for customers matters to them.
And vendors like Dave becoming established again on pitches, reconnecting with their communities, learning about new technology and looking positively toward the future, are showing us there really will be brighter times ahead.