The Sallies are taking on unscrupulous mobile traders with their own rival service. Business editor Maria Slade went out riding with the Good Shop.
It’s a freezing cold day with rain going sideways but Savannah is wearing shorts. She’s been vacuuming, and it’s hot work.
The thirty-something mum of four does a lot of cleaning at her Papatoetoe emergency accommodation. When she and her three youngest boys moved into the supposedly furnished house eight months ago it was in an “atrocious” condition. One of the beds was just a base on the floor and “they had put on a new duvet and made it look nice, but when I pulled it back things started crawling. I put all the gears on and I’ve been scrubbing my life away.”
Still, she’s grateful to have somewhere more stable for her kids to live. Before her Strengthening Families case worker managed to find the brick-and-tile bungalow, the family had lived in six different motels. “The walls were so thin, you could hear people arguing.”
Savannah is sitting in the back of the Salvation Army’s distinctive purple Good Shop, which has pulled up in her driveway at her request. It’s hard getting her boys to keep the place tidy when their stuff is stored in cardboard boxes, and she wants a loan to buy a chest of drawers.
More of her story comes out as Good Shop community loan adviser Rosana Solia goes through her budget. There is mention of Barnardos’ involvement, a safety programme for the kids, court action, a custody battle. Her attempts to impose order in a chaotic life are touchingly human.
But Savannah already has a lot of debt. Her weekly income of $770 is made up of her benefit, the accommodation supplement, the winter energy payment and the family tax credit. Close to half of it goes to finance companies, mobile shops, debt collectors and WINZ. With basic weekly expenses such as food, petrol and insurance adding up to $385 (her rent and power are covered as part of the emergency accommodation), that doesn’t leave enough to take on another loan, Rosana tells her.
At least Rosana has gone through her bank statements and figured out what she can afford. It’s more than the mobile traders the Good Shop is trying to beat will do, programme co-ordinator Jodi Hoare says. They know Savannah could go to one of those shops that very afternoon and get the drawers she wants with few questions asked. “So it’s a real balance for us,” Jodi says.
The Salvation Army has form for disrupting dubious business models. In Victorian England it bought a matchstick factory where workers were getting sick from having to lick the phosphorus. It cleaned up the practices and sold the factory back to the original owner. When the Sallies arrived in colonial New Zealand they noticed bakers were exploiting people with extremely high bread prices, so threatened to open competing bakeries unless the industry brought its prices down.
Fast forward 150 years and the church’s latest target is the fleet of mobile shops that prey upon low income suburbs with exorbitant prices and usurious interest rates. Jodi and her team have seen it all. The trucks hovering outside shopping centres asking young people if they’ve turned 18 yet so they can sign them up. The calls to past customers on their birthdays with seductive offerings. Traders selling bottles of Coke and flavoured milk on tick.
At $59 for a bag of chicken pieces and $70 for two packets of milk powder, the mobile shops’ prices are brazen from the outset. Then there are the setup fees and interest rates of 40-50%, and if a customer defaults they can end up paying interest of over 1000%, all with little to no assessment of the person’s ability to afford the loan.
The Good Shop is driving the streets of South Auckland – and shortly Porirua – offering an alternative. It provides goods and finance at decent rates and access to online grocery shopping, backed by major businesses such as The Warehouse Group, Countdown, and the BNZ. The two bright purple Good Shop vans will be around for at least three years, and then the Sallies will reassess.
“We want to be here for a time, call out the corrupt practice for what it is, and hopefully encourage the practice to change and become more sustainable for people, then leave,” Jodi says.
You wouldn’t fancy their chances. While there are plans to tighten consumer finance laws, including limiting interest and fees to no more than 100% of the original amount borrowed and requiring mobile traders to pass a ‘fit and proper person’ test, the Good Shop crew are concerned that it will all come down to enforcement. Things did improve for a while after the Commerce Commission clamped down on the 31 out of 32 operators it found were breaking the law. But the truck shops are chameleons.
“I met with someone from one of the really dodgy shopping trucks and they’ve got six different business names that they move between for different scenarios,” Jodi observes. “If you’re happy to operate your business on the opposite side of the law, how much difference is it really going to make?”
Those who work on the Good Shop also despair over successive governments’ refusal to introduce an interest rate cap, and as an absolute minimum they would like to see a ban on the trucks selling food.
The Good Shop’s second customer of the day is Debbie, a slight 35-year old who is getting a loan to buy a microwave and TV. The cold weather plays havoc with the six metal rods and 32 screws in her back, she remarks cheerily. She’s been away in Taranaki because her grandmother died and the people her husband had in the house trashed it, leaving her with just a single cooking pot. Debbie looks older than her years and says she’s been in debt since she was 18. There have been drug issues, the Good Shop staff tell me later.
But she has paid off her loans to the point where she is able to afford the finance for these household items, and it is far better that she borrows from the Sallies’ purple van than an unscrupulous trader.
They’re running ahead of schedule so customer care adviser Kara Dutton rings the third client to ask if the van can come round early. The woman’s mother says she can’t wake her, and not to bother coming at all. It’s just the way it is with this work, the team say. A good one in three of their customers fail to show, and it’s The Spinoff’s second attempt to go out with the Good Shop. On the first day all the customers cancelled.
Some may argue a microwave and a TV are not necessities, but the purple van even has cheap speakers and entry level headphones in its catalogue. When the competition is selling branded basketball gear and knock-off streetwear on tick you’ve got to keep an open mind.
However the online grocery shopping hasn’t taken off yet. The Good Shop has a deal with Countdown where customers can go online in the van and get their shopping delivered for a reduced fee. That’s great for people without transport or internet access, but many use mobile shops because they haven’t got food money for the week. When they’re told the Good Shop doesn’t sell food on credit, they’re not interested.
People think shopping trucks are a relatively new concept. Jodi can remember them from her childhood in Otara.
“What you see becomes your normal. When I was doing research you’d talk to capable, competent people who because they’ve grown up with it would literally go, ‘what’s wrong with buying from a shopping truck?’
“We’re always battling with the fact that, depending on which shopping truck, many would lend to a hundred percent of people.”
Additional reporting by Madeleine Chapman.