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How Britain’s battered high street is affecting Big Issue sellers

Some Big Issue vendors are worried about what a return to their pitches might look like after Covid-19 forced many retailers to shut

Covid-19 has hit the high street hard. 

In March, John Lewis stepped up its ambitions to sidestep into the housing market to help stem its pandemic-hit retail losses. Debenhams, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins are also among the retailers permanently closing stores. 

And according to research from accountancy firm PwC, more than 17,500 chain store outlets disappeared from high streets, shopping centres and retail parks across the country last year.

These closures will have a seismic effect on the look and feel of the UK’s towns, cities and villages – and put the jobs of thousands of workers at risk.

But the changes will also impact the hundreds of Big Issue vendors in England and Wales who are returning to their pitches this week. 

Many of them are based in busy hubs that would usually be humming with life, such as Simon Gravell, 53, who sells the magazine outside a now-closed Topshop in Norwich city centre. 

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While he has been “counting the days down” to getting back out, he is “very concerned” about what a return to his pitch could look like. 

“Literally within a 30-second walk from my pitch I’ve lost Debenhams, Thornton’s, there was a travel agent that has closed down and also Topshop,” Gravell said. 

“My little corner is going to look pretty bleak.” 

With the potential for less footfall as stores closed down – on top of fewer people in centres as more work from home – understandably, some vendors are worried about their income being put at risk.

Another vendor, Julie Cherry, 51, who sells outside Waitrose in Winton, Bournemouth, added: “Winton, where I am, its kind of dying. 

“More banks are closing, smaller shops have closed, I think it’s going to be different because of the high street. A lot of shops have closed.” 

Cherry doesn’t believe the Waitrose that she sells outside of will close but has noticed that more people are shopping online and worries that could be the case for a while. 

Gravell said that as he had wandered around Norwich, he had seen more shops closing. He said he hoped Waitrose would take over the unit where Topshop once was.

“If I could get a food outlet, a Tesco Express or a Sainsbury’s, that would actually extend my selling time on my pitch from seven o’clock in the morning till ten o’clock at night. So I’m fingers crossed that a food outlet goes in there.”

Chris Falchi-Stead, The Big Issue’s director of sales and operations, said the social enterprise was doing “everything it could” to help vendors who wanted to move to a more commercially viable pitch. 

“We’ve been doing that during lockdown and we will continue to do that,” he said. 

“There are some vendors who might have been selling outside of shops, and that shop that they have been selling outside of is closed. 

“Our vendors have become such a part of the community that it might make sense for them to move to a different shop or slightly down the road [rather than somewhere they haven’t sold before]. 

“It’s very much a bit of an organic process at the moment to see: Is it commercially viable [for a vendor] to stay in that area? Or would it be better for them to move slightly further afield?”. 

Falchi-Stead added there were some unknowns about whether the public would be back out in large numbers. 

“We’re all in this together. We haven’t really been through anything like this before. 

“We’ll do all we can support our vendors, whether they decide to stay in town or city, or village, wherever they’re selling. Or if they decide to move on. 

“Ultimately, the decision is actually theirs. It’s up to vendors where they would like to sell, we have a pitch booking system, and we have designated pitches that they can sell on. And that’s something that evolves all the time.”

The Big Issue offers the opportunity for homeless and vulnerably housed people across the UK to provide a legitimate income. 

When vendors can sell, they buy magazines for £1.50 and sell to the public for £3, keeping the difference.

You can find your local Big Issue vendor using our online map.

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