“How many of us have actually tried selling for a day?”

By Callum McSorley

“How many of us have actually tried selling for a day?” asked Richard van Rijn, head of distribution at Straatnieuws in the Netherlands (pictured).

Richard’s challenge came on Wednesday at the INSP conference in Glasgow, as part of a Street Paper Exchange which allowed members to share problems and new ideas.

Richard’s street paper has a tradition that he believes could help not street paper staff to put themselves in the vendors’ shoes – every new start, from volunteers and interns on up, has to spend a full day on the streets selling papers,

Richard himself went through this rite of passage recently.

“It’s damn hard, and I’m a communicative person, especially in Dutch,” he said.

“I like to make fun, tell jokes, and sing and dance but if you’re standing there on a cold, rainy day and people are ignoring you, even the biggest optimist will get depressed in a matter of hours.”

Along with the new intake of interns, Richard spent six hours trying to sell papers in the city – and didn’t make a single euro.

“One guy sold one paper and another one got a euro or two euros tip, and that gave a really interesting perspective on how it is to be on the street.  Before they had that experience they were like, ‘oh, yeah, well it’s not really that hard to be on your legs for seven or eight hours’, but once they experienced it, it became clear that it’s a very, very hard job.”

Des Sharples of The Big Issue UK agreed that the experience could be valuable – pointing to similar projects in Britain and Australia where celebrities, business leaders, city councillors and even police are given a vendor jacket and sent out to a pitch in town.

“For people who work on councils and people within the police, it’s good for them to know because these are some of the guys that might hassle your vendors or just not understand what it is that they’re going through,” he said. “If you can get them to have a little bit of empathy with your vendors because they’ve been out and done it themselves, it’s pretty good.”

INSP and The Big Issue recently staged The Big Sell Off, a variation of this idea that saw celebrities sell The Big Issue to raise money for charity.

Also speaking at the Street Paper Exchange, Alan Attwood, editor of The Big Issue Australia, voiced his own idea of how to change public perceptions of homeless vendors, by going straight to the top of the Australian government.

He proposed starting a project called ‘Dear Prime Minister’, in which The Big Issue Australia’s vendors would write letters to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, using their own words and experiences to break stereotypes and influence public opinion from the top down.

These kinds of activities can also benefit the street paper itself. “I think the only way to survive as a publication is to be unique and what makes us unique is the vendors,” he said. “It makes us different, it makes us special.”