First off, let us define who a street vendor is (also known as a hawker) for the avoidance of doubt. A street vendor is basically someone who provides their goods or services out in the open without a fixed abode. If they operate with some of form of structure it is usually temporary and largely mobile. Most do not even have structures but simply have the stock that they set up somewhere for the day or move around with as they look for customers. Do not kid yourself though by thinking these people are all paupers or low-lives – most of them make way more money than formally employed folk who work in buildings, offices and the like. In this article, I discuss some business lessons we can draw from how street vendors go about their ventures.

Being Customer-Centric

Vendors have a deep appreciation for the fact that the customer is truly a king. Instead of waiting for customers to initiate contact or a conversation with them they are usually the ones who approach prospective customers. You probably experience this daily whereby vendors try to strike up a conversation with you so that they sell you something. They are oblivious of how demeaning it can be for them to appear desperate or undignified. This is because their primal focus and undivided attention will be on you the customer or prospective customer.

Even in choosing a location to operate from they always endeavour to be as close as possible to potential customers. All these approaches are borne out of centring all their energy and focus on charming, serving and pleasing you the customer. These are things any other business owners must emulate because most get too engrossed in their businesses and disregard the power of the customer. It is not surprising to get into some brick and mortar business premises and end up having to ask who you can see because no one would have sprung to your service upon arrival.

Thinking Unconventionally

Vendors are known to come up with goods and services in a way that defies the norm. They can come up with enterprising initiatives that are akin to thinking outside the box. In fact, you can be almost certain that they can even think as if there is no box at all. I will give one example to enunciate this observation which I am sure you might have come across. Some vendors realized that basic goods were becoming expensive for most people so they brainstormed on how they could realize sales regardless.

Instead of selling foodstuffs in their usual denominations or units they decided to break them down into smaller and more affordable units. For example, instead of selling a 2-litre container of cooking oil they started selling it in smaller quantities such as a cup full. Interestingly, it turned out they realized more sales and more profit. This is what any business must do; break free from the cocoon or box you are holed up in and think unconventionally. This is also closely tied into the prudence of realizing small unit profit margins whilst pushing volumes – vendors have epitomized that.

Ability To Adapt And Pivot Fast

Operating as a vendor in Zimbabwe is obviously quite tasking due to the volatile operating environment. With the incessant statutory instruments and directives enacted virtually every week by the government, vendors are some of the first to feel the effects. So what keeps them afloat and functional? It is their ability to adapt to an ever-changing operating environment and pivoting fast. This point brings to the fore a whole lot of other implied aspects such as a continuous study and intimate understanding of market dynamics. Vendors will always explore ways to keep up with evolving market needs and the dictates of the economy – quitting is never an easy consideration.

Vendors are so versatile that when they notice that something no longer sells they quickly take up different goods or services to offer. That is even something they would do after exhausting multiple ways to keep pushing sales. I even recall noticing that some vendors started selling airtime so as to get cash (which is usually needed when they buy their stocks). The thing is, they would offer services to those having cash but wanting to buy airtime. So they would send airtime to such people from their Ecocash accounts in exchange for the cash. When I am talking about adapting and pivoting that is a perfect example and something other businesses must take a cue from.

Discipline And Consistency

Most vendors wake up quite early to make their way to purchase their stocks (e.g. those into selling fresh farm produce). Generally, vendors set up their stuff early and are usually the last to leave after everyone else is gone. This is a routine they can do and maintain daily for the whole year. This is a testament to the virtues of discipline and consistency, virtues every entrepreneur must-have. Their discipline is also seen in their diligent re-cultivation of profits into their business to generate more income.

Symbiotic Co-Existence With Competitors

Usually, in business people tend to vehemently shun competitors but that is not always wise. It is amazing how vendors can sit next to each other selling the same goods and yet conversing and even helping each other out. Competition exists, yes that is a given, but collaboration can bring so many shared benefits where everyone wins. This is something that can be learnt from vendors.

If you want to draw inspiration on how to operate on lean budgets then your case study should be vendors. They have mastered the art of running businesses on lean budgets which is a vital skill especially in tough times like these. I personally am always intrigued by the business ventures of street vendors and I always chat with them to draw insights from how they manage their hustles. Next time you see a street vendor, think of these things.