Standing at her usual spot right below Seattle City Hall, Real Change vendor Mellie Kaufman made one of the first paper sales using a cashless payment app.
The customer was a regular of Kaufman’s. He logged into the Venmo app, found Real Change, typed in Kaufman’s name and badge number and paid her $5, $2 for the cover price of the paper plus a $3 tip.
“It was a neat experience,” Kaufman said. “I physically gave him a paper but the money was right there when I came down to the office.”
Real Change started cashless payments through the Venmo app on Jan. 25. Customers can now use the app to purchase Real Change from any vendor. Available on the Apple Store and Google Play, Venmo is a digital wallet that draws money from a credit card, a debit card or a balance of payments stored with the service.
To purchase Real Change with Venmo, open the app on a smartphone and search for Real Change’s tag — it must be exact — “@Real-Change” or the name “Real Change” with a space between the two words. From there, the transaction works like any other Venmo payment: enter in the $2 price of a Real Change newspaper plus any tip to the vendor, then type the vendor’s name and badge number into the notes section. Press enter and the vendor will hand over a copy of Real Change. This payment enters a Real Change account, and, after an overnight processing period, the cash is available to the vendor the next day.
The integration of Venmo follows a trend that is affecting media outlets around the world. Changing technology and patterns of consumption are forcing news organizations to revisit their models.
“All trends show that newspapers or print media are down,” said Vendor Program Manager Jerred Clouse, “and a lot of them, not just street papers but a lot of print media, are trying to figure out where their place is in the digital world.”
For Real Change, finding a new model in the digital age is a delicate balancing act. Larger news outlets can rely on subscription fees and draw people to online content. Real Change is a print product sold by vendors trying to earn a living. Vendors are not just at the center of the organization, they are the lifeblood. The sale of the paper is not just a financial transaction but a conversation across classes.
“Customers and vendors interact, develop relationships and build community,” Clouse said. “That is mission-critical. If we aren’t having that conversation between vendors and the community, we’ve lost why we’re here.”
For Kaufman, Venmo helps her relationship with her customers. A lot of the people she sees are rushing off to work, commuting from the outskirts of the city or simply don’t have cash on them. Now she has the opportunity to interact with more people and in ways that she sees as quicker and simpler for everyone involved.
The introduction of Venmo isn’t the first technological change for the organization, and according to Clouse, it won’t be the last. He sees all of this as a process of trial and error, recalling the experimentation with a Real Change smartphone app over the past four years. The Real Change app offered a digital version of the paper for $3. Sales were poor, and Real Change discontinued the app after conversations with vendors. Now that Venmo is running, Clouse looks to the future to help further shape Real Change’s model.
Every phase of experimentation has included the vendors. The discontinued Real Change app digitized the newspaper but retained the vendor interactions. Venmo sells the physical paper and promises the opportunity for even more conversations. Clouse explained that there is an uncertainty mixed with the urgent need to continue transforming Real Change in order to solidify a place in this new media landscape. He recognizes that Venmo is the best available option at this time, and that there will be more experimentation in the future. The place of the vendors will always rest above the pursuit of technology at Real Change.
After selling Real Change on and off for 16 years, Kaufman is optimistic about the future of cashless payments. She believes the system is convenient not just for the customer, but for vendors too.
“All we have to do is keep spreading the word out and keep everyone up to date and let people know,” Kaufman said. “Hey Venmo is out! Give it a try!”