There’s an app for that: mobile tech helps customers find street paper vendors in Canada and Greece

By Rebekah Funk 

Vancouver’s just had a torrential downpour – the angry, grey heavens have showered enough rain to frighten the faint of heart indoors.

I, however, am on a mission – it’s nearing the end of the monthly Megaphone magazine sales cycle and I don’t have a copy. Nor do I know where to get one, since my regular vendor has moved across town.

It’s a common problem for street paper sales, says the street paper’s editor, Sean Condon. It’s why his team first launched its Vendor Finder app two years ago, linking prospective customers with those who faithfully sell the magazine.

The app recently won the INSP Award 2015 for Best Technology Innovation at the network’s annual summit, held this year in Seattle – an award Condon humbly says he never expected his simple app to win, especially against worthy mobile apps from Greece’s Shedia magazine and The Big Issue South Africa.

Megaphone vendor Patrick. Photo: Megaphone

But it was this simplicity I found so effective, as I hastily pulled on a rain coat and rubber boots. With one or two clicks on a map, I was able to find a vendor close to my office. His name was Patrick, the app told me, and displayed a photo of a man with long brown hair and a toothless grin.

I head out the door – rain momentarily abated – and scan for Patrick. Spying him on a bench by the entrance to a underground train station, I dash over, mission accomplished.

While he doesn’t know exactly how many customers find him using the app, Patrick says it’s a big city and it is helpful to have regulars who know where to come every month to get the magazine.

We chat for a while and I hand over my $2 for the paper. Patrick says he can throw in a kiss for an extra buck. I laugh and say I’ll see him again soon.

Vendor Finder isn’t just about increasing numbers and profits, says Todd Sieling of Denim and Steel, the local design firm that donated about $15,000 (three months of design and technical work) to get Megaphone’s app up and running – it’s about relationships.

“We’ve seen different interactions between customers and vendors during and after the project that are warm and heartfelt,” Sieling says.

“During our design research, we noticed that many new Megaphone readers were not becoming regular readers because they were not sure when and where they could buy the magazine. If they knew a vendor, they didn’t always know their schedule, and sometimes they didn’t have enough exposure to recognise vendors in different places,” Sieling explains.

“By making it more certain that one can find the magazine, the app helps interested new readers become regulars. And with more regulars, we expect to see a gradual and sustainable rise in sales.”

While the function and design went through several iterations, the final product is ‘bare bones’ for a reason.

“We don’t put any of the magazine’s content into the app other than the cover. The point is to see a vendor in person, and we never lose sight of that,” Sieling emphasises.

Likewise, vendors’ biographies aren’t featured on the app. Condon says the omission helps potential customers seek out the vendor in their vicinity, not the one with the most moving history.

“We didn’t want it to become a popularity contest between vendors to see who could articulate their stories better,” Condon adds.

Only vendors who are consistent enough to get their own “turf” are included in the app (about a dozen in Vancouver), with their location and “typical” hours of operation listed.

Condon says the app gets between 10 to 20 hits on a good day, although that number was closer to 60 when it was first released – perhaps a sign that customers are finding vendors and forging relationships that go beyond technology.

“It helps to direct people there but it’s difficult to know how many people are using it. We see the analytics but we don’t actually know how many people actually go out and get a magazine from the vendor they looked up on the app,” he adds.

Condon’s ultimate goal is to maintain and increase street sales, which currently average around 3,000 to 5,000 copies per month.

The street paper was also recently awarded a $30,000 grant to explore other tech innovations: Condon is particularly interested in developing an electronic payment app like those piloted in Cape Town, Seattle and the UK, to render the commonly-heard “I don’t have cash” excuse obsolete.

“We hope to reveal the new app in the Spring – after our busiest season. That way, we can ensure we’re releasing something that’s effective and that we can manage, especially when there are cashless sales transactions involved,” says Condon.

According to Condon, the design for Vendor Finder is all open source, so fellow non-profits can easily mimic apps of their own.

Shedia's vendor finder app

Other street papers are working on similar innovations: in Greece, Shedia has begun piloting its own mobile app for Apple and Android, to engage readers. A little more content-complex than Megaphone’s, its design and implementation took more than a year.

A focus on social projects – not just editorial content – forms an integral part of the Shedia app. Editor in Chief Chris Alefantis hopes the community will engage with the street paper, its homeless football team, upcoming events, and up-cycling projects. But the magazine won’t get lost in the fray, he adds: readers will receive notifications to let them know when the newest edition hits the streets.

Shedia’s Communications and Social Project Manager, Emilia Douka, says the organisation receives many emails and phone calls from individuals that are trying to find vendors, partly because they rotate between pitches each day.

“We needed to develop a software with a database that lists the time schedule for each vendor,” Douka explains. It’s a tricky thing to update everyday but the paper has developed a fairly easy way of keeping information current.

“Everything we add or change in this software, directly informs the mobile app. That’s why the user finds active pitches, now and for the next few hours.”

This up-to-the-minute information and engagement is essential to Shedia’s health as a street paper, she adds.

“Here in Greece, our readers feel part of this project, they communicate with us or with the vendors on the pitch, sharing their experience with the vendors, or their opinions about social issues and articles. The app makes it easy.”