Living In A Digital World

15 November 2018 Amy Hetherington

Living In A Digital World

More Ways to Pay!

No cash? No worries. Editor Amy Hetherington hits the streets to try the how, why and who of The Big Issue magazine’s new digital payment options.

We’re working on pitch, the rain is threatening to dampen the day. Typical Melbourne spring weather. We’re under a shop awning on a busy city corner. Lauren has her pitch set up just how she likes it. She’ll be out here selling The Big Issue for six-or-so hours, and she’s kindly agreed to let me tag along.

Lauren’s backpack is plump with new editions, her bumbag full of change and there’s plenty of foot traffic. I’m determined we’re going to make a stack of sales. Some Big Issue vendors have a special spruik, they might juggle mags or crack jokes; Lauren prefers a quieter approach. She holds up a mag and smiles at a suited businessman who stops right in front of us to check his mobile. He almost steps on me, oblivious.

Big Issue! Would you like a Big Issue?” Lauren asks. He says no thanks, and walks on. He’s the only person to engage us for the next 15 minutes.

Selling The Big Issue is a tough gig. Seriously tough. Lauren tells me the worst bit is the weather. Then there’s the invisibility. And, about 12 months ago, vendors reported it was getting even tougher – people were carrying less cash. Some had ditched their wallets altogether for smartphones and watches.

Australians have enthusiastically embraced the digital economy. Last year the Reserve Bank of Australia reported that ATM withdrawals are at a 15-year low, and declining steeply every year, as card payments officially overtake cash. For face-to-face purchases, it’s estimated that 75 per cent are tap-and-go as the nation moves towards a cashless society.

It’s something we notice out on the street today. While some people stop to chat and buy the mag, others shrug apologetically, “Sorry, I’ve got no cash.”

But no more! From 2 November, Big Issue vendors like Lauren have the option to accept digital payments: via tap-and-go or mobile app Beem It.

“I’m absolutely excited about digital payments. A lot more people are going to want to buy the mag; I hope I get a lot of sales,” says Lauren, who’s been selling The Big Issue for four years, on and off.

That buzz is echoed by vendors around the country – though there are also some nerves. Change is challenging. It’s why Big Issue staff have been working with vendors to find banking solutions, obtain necessary ID and source the right phones. They’ve been holding training sessions to discuss sales strategies, budgeting and, of course, the new technology.

Lauren has just come from one such meeting. She shows me the compact card reader for tap-and-go hanging from the lanyard around her neck. Next to it sits her QR code for customers preferring to use Beem It. She proudly tells me it’s straightforward, simple – and safe. “I think it’s cool, it means I can relax and not worry someone’s going to take my money. Instead it goes straight into my bank account,” says Lauren. “It is better for safety.”

It offers vendors choice, and empowers them with new tools to run their microbusiness. Vendors spend their own money to buy copies of the magazine for $3.50, which they sell for $7. How they sell the mag is up to them. Not all vendors will go digital, and that’s okay. But it’s predicted up to 70 per cent will offer at least one digital option by Christmas.

“For 23 years our vendors have done an amazing job, and we are now moving with the times,” says Big Issue CEO Steven Persson. “It’s something we had to do to assist our vendors to remain current and connected.”

It’s a trend witnessed by other street papers around the world. Chicago-based StreetWise launched a phone-based payment system in March, which now accounts for 15 per cent of sales.

Swedish street paper Faktum introduced digital payments back in 2014, which met a shaky start. “It was hard – vendors did not have phones that were good enough technically; they were also afraid of the new technology,” says editor-in-chief Sarah Britz. But since then, technology has improved. “Approximately everyone” at Faktum is now using Swedish mobile app Swish, and it’s helped vendors maintain solid sales.

These trials and errors have helped inform The Big Issue’s two digital payment options, as has support and expertise from some of Australia’s big banks.

“I’m proud that Australia’s banks have worked together to enable Big Issue vendors to enter the digital economy,” says Anna Bligh, Australian Banking Association CEO. “I’m certain it will give them greater financial empowerment.”

“It’s been a really careful, thoughtful process,” adds Persson. “We recognise that if we don’t get the methodology right, people who are working on the streets may not have a bed that evening.

“The technology was relatively simple, but we had to consider privacy on both sides, we had to consider speed of payment, access of payment and fees. We sifted through so many methodologies to make sure they were affordable, accessible and safe for both parties. And that takes time to get it right.”

And Lauren can’t wait to make her first digital sale. “I love using new technology, so it’s going to be really fun to use,” she says. “I reckon the customers are going to love it.”

Amy Hetherington is Editor of The Big Issue.

Find out more about digital payments.