My Brief Experience as a New York City Street Vendor

My Brief Experience as a New York City Street Vendor

It was hot.

On my left was a kid 14 or 15 years old wearing long red basketball shorts and a plain white shirt who was carefully arranging boxes of sunglasses on a table covered by a velvet tablecloth.

On my right was a short Hispanic woman selling snow cones out of a pushcart the size of a mini-fridge. I was jealous of her because protruding out of the pushcart was a blue and white umbrella that she was standing under the shade of.

I, on the other hand, was standing directly in the sun. Where the sun hit my skin I could feel the tingling sensation of my skin burning. On a table in front of me were my wares – Bluetooth speakers, iPhone cords, several different types of wallets, and much more – all for sale. I had been standing on the sidewalk for the past hour and a half. Dozens of people strolled past me every minute. 

Most people walked by without realizing I was there, completely engulfed in their own world. Some people looked at my table with curiosity as they strolled past, but quickly turned away once their eyes threatened to make contact with mine. And a few brave individuals stopped to examine the items, picking up wallets and water bottles before putting them back down and asking me for the price.

LIVING IN THE CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY, I pass by dozens of vendors going to and from work every day. They range from selling Halal food, to smoothies, to sunglasses, to the newest fad, Spinners. I’ve always been interested in street vendors. Partly because they appear to be the purest embodiment of entrepreneurship, partly because it just seems so easy. You buy a table, ship in some merchandise from China, find a busy street corner, stand around for a few hours while grabbing a tan, and watch the money flow in.

At least that’s what I thought.

When I was walking back from Bryant Park one Saturday, my curiosity finally overcame my fear of talking to strangers and I stopped by a vendor camped out in front of the Herald Square H&M to see what being a street vendor was really like.

Half of the vendor’s table was covered by different styles of sunglasses stood upright and staring into the sky. The other half was covered by miscellaneous jewelry; from leather bracelets, to beaded necklaces to gold colored chokers. A sign attached to a standing handcart announced that the jewelry was on sale for a mere dollar.

Behind the table was an African American man in his late 40’s or early 50’s. He had dreadlocks pulled back with more than a sprinkle of grey in them and was wearing a dark green hoodie, camo cargo pants, and what appeared to be Oakley sunglasses, but upon further inspection, were actually unbranded. The man looked so relaxed and motionless in his chair that I was afraid he was asleep. But as I approached him, he turned his head towards me.

I nervously stuttered out that I was working on a project to learn more about street vendors and asked whether he had a few minutes to chat. The vendor asked what school I was in and what the project was for. I explained that it was actually a personal project, which felt unbelievably ridiculous as I was saying it, but the vendor didn’t comment - he just said okay.

From his initially reserved demeanor, I was prepared to pry words out of my new interviewee. However, Ronald the vendor dove into the history of vending with little prompting. He started off with how “vending has been around since the Civil War with Abraham Lincoln” and how recently it has become harder and harder to be a street vendor.

I learned that there are only around 800 general vendor licenses available (licenses to sell merchandise as opposed to food vendor licenses). The waiting list for new permits is closed to new applicants though special licenses are still being granted to veterans.

Additionally, both Giuliani and Bloomberg imposed stricter vendor regulations during their terms. Having a table that was too close to the street or raised too high could easily escalate into a fine of $1,000 or more. Many vendors Ronald knew couldn’t afford to renew their vendor licenses simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their fines.

When I probed into why there was such a crackdown on vendors, Ronald pointed to the massive department stores overlooking us: “Because the mayor’s friends, Macy’s, Gap, H&M don’t want street vendors in front of them.”

Ronald got into vending because he was incarcerated after receiving an honorable discharge from the military. He didn’t provide more details about his incarceration and I didn’t ask. He explained that as part of his conditions for coming out, there is a parole board whose job it is to “cover themselves” by forcing parolees into programs and classes. Ronald took a class for veterans and through an introduction, he started selling sunglasses for another vendor. Ronald reminiscenced, “money was good before the recession.”

I was surprised to hear that. Not because I didn’t believe money was good before ’08, but because I never thought about how the recession affected street vendors. My mind usually went to housing, clothing brands, or restaurants. I never considered the impact of the recession on the guy selling hot dogs in Central Park.

Yet, it did. Ronald recalled how people became tighter with their money after ’08 since buying from street vendors is a common way for people to spend their disposable income.

Although he admitted that business had slightly picked up since then, he made it a point to emphasize that things just weren’t the same. The “recovery” had only benefited the rich and that “millionaires were not coming to this table”.

MY CONVERSATION WITH RONALD inspired me to try my hand at vending. Other than the pesky vendor license, I actually had or could easily acquire all the items needed to be a street vendor.

Through another project, I had an inventory of miscellaneous items I could sell. I had two types of Bluetooth speakers, three types of wallets, braided iPhone cords, stainless steel water bottles, just to name a few. I ordered a table from Amazon and on noon one Saturday, I set up a stand in front of the H&M near where Ronald usually vends. He wasn’t there that day.

I knew I was vending without a license but I kept telling myself that the chances of being caught were slim. I also knew that you could technically vend without a license if you sell items protected by the First Amendment (usually books and art), and I tried convincing myself that that’s what I was doing.

Thus I was petrified when, as I was setting up, another vendor came up and asked me if I had a license. He seemed to be asking more out of curiosity than any nefarious reasons but my stomach recoiled and I instinctively replied yes. I’m sure the vendor knew I was lying because as he was walking away he said that “he wasn’t trying to get me in trouble” but “just wanted [me] to stay safe”.

A little shaken, I resumed setting up until my table was covered with items. I then pulled up a chair, put on my sunglasses, and waited.

I didn’t have to wait long. The mother of a Chinese family noticed a wallet with a built-in money clip on my table. She motioned for her family to stop walking while she showed the wallet to her teenage son.

She asked for the price, which I told her ($6), before she turned back to her son. I couldn’t quite hear the conversation between them but the next thing I knew, the woman was giving me $6 and the son put the wallet in his pocket. This was my first sale and I felt a surge of pride at having turned a product into a profit so quickly.

As I waited for my next sale, I noticed that the people who came up to my table and those of the vendors around me typically fell into two categories: families of tourists visiting the Empire State Building and native New Yorkers passing through Herald Square.

The first category were immediately recognizable by their giant backpacks and Birkenstock sandals. An item on a table would catch the eye of someone in the family and the entire group would stop at the booth.

They would pick up and inspect the item for a minute or two before asking the vendor for the price. The family would openly discuss the potential purchase among themselves before the head of the family would either pull out his/her wallet or awkwardly mutter “Thanks” and corral the family forward.

The second category were New Yorkers that stop to inquire about an item while power-walking their way to a final destination. Upon hearing the item price, they would either wordlessly walk away or instantaneously hand over the necessary amount.

My next sale occurred in this manner. I sold a red braided iPhone cord to a black male teenager and the entire transaction took less than 30 seconds.

WHEN I QUESTIONED RONALD about how he runs his table, I was impressed by the thought he put behind each business decision. Intellectually I knew that this was his livelihood, but only through talking with him did I really understand what that meant.

I asked whether he talks to the other vendors around him, some of whom work 5 or 6 feet away, and Ronald said no. I must have looked a little taken aback because Ronald followed up with,  “Does Macy’s talk to H&M?”, “Does Victoria’s Secret talk to Gap?” once again pointing to the buildings around us.

Competition is stiff and vendors constantly drop their prices. You either “undercut or get left behind”. Where each vendor purchases their merchandise from is also a closely guarded secret. According to Ronald, “Nobody talks about their sources”.

I asked Ronald how he knows what items to sell, especially since he sells several items designed for women.

Ronald made it clear that the first and most important rule he uses is to only “sell things that he likes and would wear”. He explained that many other street vendors will simply buy whatever their supplier recommends as the hot product of the month, but Ronald makes sure to judge the items himself. Because he got into vending by selling sunglasses, he’s confident that he roughly knows what styles will sell. For jewelry he might ask around for a few opinions, but he will still ultimately go with his gut.

The second rule Ronald uses is to pick items that offer the “biggest bang for your buck”. He doesn’t look for items that offer less than 50% to 100% profit margin and most of the time he’s looking for even higher margins than that. He pointed to a white rope belt that a woman might wear and explained that he chose that piece because he bought it for $0.30 per unit and knew he could sell it for $1.

In terms of when he works, Ronald tries to “worker smarter”. He says that most vendors just work weekends because that’s when tourists are around. They don’t see the value of working on weekdays because there’s not as much foot traffic. However, Ronald works afternoon weekdays as well. “Sure there’s less people” he says, “but during those there’s also less competition”.

"WORKING SMARTER" was certainly on my mind after standing outside for close to two and a half hours and having only sold a wallet and iPhone charger.

What was especially discouraging was watching the brisk pace of business that the vendors to the right and left of me were doing. People were constantly stopping by to cool off with a snow cone or trying on different pairs of sunglasses.

I feared that I was being drowned out by the other vendors so I moved locations to between 6th and 7th, in front of the back exit of the Empire State Building. There were less people, but I was alone in my sales endeavors apart from an art stand 10 yards down.

Whether by pure chance, the time of day, or the benefits of less competition, I saw a noticeable uptick in interest. Not only were more people coming up to my booth, but more people were actually buying.

Two Chinese women in their late 20's and dressed in head-to-toe designer clothing came up to my table after being drawn in by the music coming from one of my aluminum Bluetooth speakers. After peppering me with questions about the speakers’ price, battery life, volume controls, and confirming that the speaker they picked out would indeed play music, they gave me $15 and went on their way, arm in arm.

A curious Indian father approached my table and beckoned for his wife, 7 year old daughter, and teenage son to join him. After inquiring about every item on my table, he and his wife finally settled on the ever-popular money-clip wallet.

The father tried to haggle by asking to buy two wallets for $10 but I held firm. The father relented and gave me $12. The wife then saw my bin of iPhone chargers and the father once again tried to haggle for 2 cords for $5 (normally $3). This time I relented.

The father was in the process of investigating the Bluetooth speakers when the son, clearly frustrated by his parents’ lack of movement, pulled on his father saying “Let’s go, you can get better speakers on Amazon.” The father left, but not without a few reluctant glances back at the deserted speakers.

A couple I assumed were from Venezuela (based off their accents and the man’s shirt that said “Venezuela”), came up to my table and carefully examined my wallets. Upon learning that the slim wallets was only $4, the man bought one and walked off.

I thought that was the end of the sale but then I noticed the man playing with the wallet a few feet away. The man walked back to my table and I was briefly afraid there was a defect in the wallet I had sold him. However, he grabbed five more wallets off my table and handed me a $20 bill.

By 5PM I had spent close to 5 hours as a vendor. I was $68 richer, $30 of which was profit.

I initially thought that standing around for so many hours would get boring, but it never did. Being a vendor is the ultimate people watching experience heightened by the fact that any person could be my next sale.

Overall, I enjoyed talking to people, even when it was clear that they had no intention of buying anything. Maybe because of how young I looked, but more than a couple of people came up to me just to make conversation or to ask for directions. There is something liberating about communicating with someone you will never see again.

But I was tired of standing and tired of the sun. I put my remaining merchandise in my suitcase, folded up my table, and rolled my stuff back to my apartment.

AT THE CONCLUSION of my interview with Ronald, I asked him what his biggest takeaway has been after being a vendor for so many years. Being an eminently practical man, Ronald instantly replied, the “The money is always going to be here. You can hold a job or do something else for a while but you can always come back to vending.”

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