Also, I'm not sure why it's socks in particular
October 10, 2011 4:50 PM   Subscribe

What is the business model of people who sell socks at intersections?

In Chicago, at every third or fourth red light, someone will try to sell you plain white men's socks through your car window.

But how could this possibly be more profitable than begging?
- While I've sat in traffic over the years, I've watched these vendors ply their socks for maybe 2 hours total. In all that time I've never seen a single successful sale. (Which makes sense -- I can't imagine buying socks in that way, except perhaps moments after I'd stepped in a puddle.)
- Suppose that you sold one pack of socks every 3 hours. You could get, what, $4 or $5 for them? Even assuming that the socks are stolen, so that that $4.50 is pure profit -- and even ignoring the risk you take by stealing in the first place -- surely you can make more than $12/day begging at a busy intersection in a big city? (I know that the profitability of begging is a contentious topic, but Straight Dope suggests that my suspicion here is correct.)
- And I don't think that sockmongering simply *supplements* the income of a beggar, since I've also never seen anyone donate to these people.

Because I can't see how this could be more profitable than just begging, I've begun to speculate about other explanations.
- Are the vendors really selling drugs or pot, hidden in the socks?
- Is there some kind of workfare-style charity in place, that is willing to pay these people so long as they're at least making an effort to support themselves?
- Maybe established beggars are more willing to permit sock-hawking, which they don't view as competition, than they'd be willing to permit newcomers' begging in their territory?
- Maybe some religion proscribes begging?
- Maybe the dignity of calling yourself a salesman, instead of a beggar, is worth giving up (a large proportion of your) profits?

Any insights? Maybe some of my estimates are incorrect? Is there some other explanation here that's not occurring to me?

(I know that homelessness and begging can be politically-contentious topics. Please try to keep political axe-grinding -- in either direction -- out of what is meant to be a descriptive question about an improbable business model.)
posted by foursentences to Work & Money (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do people sometimes just give them money as charitable donations? I've got a friend who did street-corner-with-a-sign begging as an experiment a few years ago, and he learned that you can make $50-$150/day just asking for cash from strangers. Perhaps sock sales add to the total?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:26 PM on October 10, 2011

Just because someone has started a business venture does not mean it is a profitable one. Perhaps the sock sellers are mentally ill and so are not thinking rationally.
posted by dfriedman at 5:37 PM on October 10, 2011

I buy donuts from the guy who sells them as a "charitable fundraiser" for no specified cause at my Metro station. I might buy flowers from a vendor at an intersection. I don't buy sheets because I know that cheap sheets are not a bargain. My city doesn't have socks but I could see trying out the wares of a random sock vendor, being part of a household that seems to be all-too-often on the verge of a sock-shortage crisis. Sock-selling doesn't sound that crazy to me.
posted by Morrigan at 6:07 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sock selling makes sense to me. But I think it's more like the Boy Scouts with their apple sales. It isn't quite the same as begging and some people will give you more than $X. Some will just give you the money and not take the socks. Others will take the socks and feel like they helped a person out.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 6:53 PM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: I'm not sure this is the traditional "I give you money and you give me the thing" transaction. I'm willing to bet it's more "I give you money because you are homeless/basically begging, but not begging and are actualy trying to do something useful, so I will give you a TON more money than just $4 for some socks". I can't imagine anyone buying socks that way, but I can imagine some guy giving $20 "for some socks" that way.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:41 PM on October 10, 2011

A really great way to find out would be to just ask one of the sock vendors. ("I was wondering, how many people buy socks from you in a day? How's business? Where do you get your product from?"

People like to be talked too and engaged after hours of being ignored or rebuffed, and i bet someone would be willing to have that conversation with you. You'll probably get a blend of honest answers and vague/polite/cagey answers, but i imagine it would be interesting and elucidating nonetheless?

If you do, let us know!
posted by Kololo at 9:01 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe they mostly sell them to other homeless people? My mom donated some clothes to a local homeless shelter, and the folks there told her that clean socks are sometimes hard to come by when you're homeless. (On a related note, taking a couple packages of socks to your local shelter is an awesome thing to do.)
posted by Nibbly Fang at 9:07 PM on October 10, 2011

I've street hawked items that I have gotten in cheap in bulk before, flowers, concert tickets, light up toys for fourth of July, t-shirts at concerts.

Maybe they came across a lot of socks in bulk for free/cheap somehow.
It does not necessarily have to be more profitable than begging, in fact I would guess that you're right in assuming that begging would produce a more profitable hourly wage.

But people don't always think rationally or do things to maximize their hourly earn.
I doubt it's a scam or front for drugs or anything, but it's a possibility.

I would predict that most people selling you socks throw a window wouldn't mind talking to you about it, especially if you bought a pair.
posted by Patrick Leo at 1:35 AM on October 11, 2011

Best answer: My feeling is that the main benefit is likely to go to the "wholesaler" who provided the person with the socks rather than to the seller themselves. Perhaps the wholesaler had some excess socks which they gave to the seller rather than throw them away or recycle them. The wholesaler feels that they are giving homeless people a way to make a living, the homeless people feel it is better than begging.

Alternatively the wholesaler may be making money by selling batches of (basically worthless) socks to the gullable homeless people. A bit like a street intersection version of Amway.
posted by rongorongo at 1:37 AM on October 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks to all answerers. I sort of doubt that this is about mentally ill people all happening to pursue the same irrational business model, simply because there are at least a few dozen different people all doing the same thing. More persuasive is the possibility that some kind of predatory Amwaylike wholesaler is pawning off a broken business model on them for its own profit -- though then the question becomes how exactly the wholesaler manages to soak the homeless for worthwhile-sized entry fees they don't likely have. Maybe the most likely answer here is the simplest -- that although they indeed don't make money very often, when they do get a donation it's not for $4.5 but for $20 at once, from a donor who's disposed to be more generous with a salesman than with a beggar.

The idea that they may be selling the socks to fellow homeless people is interesting and even seems probable, but doesn't seem to explain why they would *also* spend hours trying to sell them to drivers.

Those who propose that I simply sit down with a salesman and ask him, may quite not be envisioning the scenario here -- in order to do that I'd either have to park right there at their intersection, or to coax them into my car during the course of a 30-second red light. But tell you what -- if I ever do find a way to sit down with one, I'll post an update either here or in my profile.
posted by foursentences at 6:49 AM on October 12, 2011

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