Activism

This food bank was going under. Then a group of hobby writers found an Amazon infinite money glitch

The UK’s biggest food bank has been saved by an amateur writing group who cashed in on Amazon Black Friday loophole

food bank

Ray Barron-Woolford of We Care food bank. Image: Supplied

If you could print your own money, what would you do with it? This Black Friday, a group of hobby writers discovered themselves in that position, at Amazon’s expense – and decided to save a food bank.

The We Care food bank in south London was facing permanent closure in November after a £33,000 energy bill. Its founders feared what would happen to the thousands of vulnerable people it helped.

Now it will be able to open for another year as a result of a Robin Hood-esque fundraising odyssey which includes a former prime minister, a group of friends calling themselves the Tripe Marketing Board, and an accidental goldmine found in the world’s fifth-biggest company.

This is the almost-unbelievable story of how the UK’s biggest food bank was saved.

Nick Broadhead, of Orrell Park U3A and the Tripe Marketing Board. Image: Supplied

Founded by Ray Barron-Woolford, We Care food bank in Deptford, south London, prides itself on providing fresh and healthy food. This requires running fridges. But running the fridges is not cheap, and the food bank was not immune to the hike in energy bills felt across the country. In October, Ray Barron-Woolford was told We Care’s energy bills for next year would be £33,000.

After the Big Issue highlighted We Care’s story, Barron-Woolford set to work doing more press. It was after an early-morning appearance on Radio 4 that the first unexpected saviour got in touch: Gordon Brown.

Together they launched a campaign asking people to donate their £150 council tax rebates.

By mid-November, although thousands had been raised, it was not enough to save the food bank. Barron-Woolford had decided to hand notice in to the landlord.

“I was completely exhausted in November. We didn’t have any money, we were technically bankrupt and insolvent, I couldn’t go forward,” Barron-Woolford said.

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It was only on Black Friday, when three friends noticed a discount on Amazon, that the plot took shape to save the community hub.

The Tripe Marketing Board, as they call themselves, does not really market tripe. Instead, it’s a trio in Merseyside and Yorkshire who for the past decade have been using the name as an inventive way to promote their self-published books.

One such book is Forgotten Yorkshire and Parts of North Derbyshire and Humberside. It sells maybe 50 copies a year on Amazon, so the retailer presumably thought reducing its price from £10 to 99p for Black Friday might see a modest uplift in sales.

Cash received for old tripe that’s going off to Yorkshire Food Banks. Image: Supplied

The wheeze is as follows: when Amazon reduced the book to 99p, it still paid the TMB its full royalties. The parody offal promoters donated £2 per book to a charity, and the rest of the royalties went to the writer and publisher.

The result was, at Amazon’s expense, like printing money, as long as they could persuade people to part with their 99p. When it first happened in 2020 they successfully raised money in support of the MS Society, but without the TMB realising the full potential of the loophole.

“We didn’t promote it as such, until we suddenly noticed that we got a couple of sales at 99p and it was full commission. So we thought, well, yeah we’ve got to do something with this,” said Paul Etherington of the Tripe Marketing Board.

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This year, when Black Friday rolled around and the book’s price dropped to 99p again, Etherington realised 2020’s efforts could be supercharged. Ill health had forced him to retire since then, but the chance was too good to turn down.

“I couldn’t turn my back on this opportunity when I saw it,” he said.

He used the group’s 21,000 Twitter followers as a sounding board, searching out a suitable partner. One suggested Ray and the We Care food bank.

At this point, We Care were still far short of their target and staring closure in the face. Etherington and Barron-Woolford struck up a deal – from November 14 to the end of the month, £2 a copy would go to We Care. Etherington expected perhaps two or three thousand pounds to be donated in the end.

A real-life infinite money glitch seems too good to be true, but there were limits. Amazon’s rules meant only three copies could be purchased at a time. So Etherington spread the net. 

Facebook friends, Twitter followers, neighbours and friends were all roped into the effort, buying as many 99p copies as they could. And after a week or so Etherington found someone with a business account who could order as many as they wanted.

“That was the kind of lightbulb moment that made us think Amazon have got a bit of a problem here, because there’s a bit of a loophole in the system that we can use to the charity’s benefit,” Etherington said.

With friends and family awash with multiple copies of the same book, Etherington started giving spares to charity shops to sell – making the initial 99p generate yet more money.

By the end of November, the efforts of those influenced by the Tripe Marketing Board had exceeded expectations. In total, 4,965 copies were sold, and £10,150 was sent to We Care.

“It’s a nice feeling because we didn’t expect to get anywhere near that,” said Etherington.

That money saved We Care, allowing them to cover their rent and bills for next year, but also to buy food. They’ve now raised £30,000.

“It’s not a lot to Amazon but it’s the principle of it, the small man taking on the big guy, and actually using a little bit of money to do some good with at Christmas,” Barron-Woolford said.

“We never imagined that we’d end up with all the money we needed and a bit more, especially in the current climate. But we’ve just been lucky.”

However, the increased energy bills mean changes are afoot for the food bank.

“It would be obscene for all the money we’re raised to be given to the energy providers. So we are going to have to open less days next year and reconfigure how we operate our fridges and freezers,” said Barron-Woolford.

As for the Tripe Marketing Board, the fundraising isn’t over. The deal is still on, and there are new causes benefitting.

First was a project in Glasgow, Eaglesham Street Larder, with £1,000 raised for the community group.

And now, until the deal stops, the TMB is sending £2 a copy to two community food banks in Yorkshire, Food Aware in South Yorkshire and the Welcome Centre in Huddersfield. Forgotten Yorkshire and Parts of North Derbyshire and Humberside can be found on Amazon here, if you’d like to get involved.

“Suddenly you’re a fundraiser. It’s like Withnail and I: We accidentally became fundraisers,” Etherington said.

“It’s the little man trying to fight back.”

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