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Lander's clothing store in Jamestown prepares for a "cash mob" to descend last week. Photo: Daniel Robison, Innovation Trail
Lander's clothing store in Jamestown prepares for a "cash mob" to descend last week. Photo: Daniel Robison, Innovation Trail

Cash mobs boost local business, community

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You may have heard of "flash mobs," where a mass of people invade a public space to make a scene. Now the idea has been turned on its head by "cash mobs," where large crowds of consumers show up at small businesses to spend money.

But as the Innovation Trail's Daniel Robison reports, it's not just about propping up the local economy.

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It’s five o’clock on a Friday, and mostly quiet in Lander’s Clothing, a mom and pop store in Jamestown, New York. But shop owner Ann Powers is anticipating the arrival of a mob.

“You get kind of nervous thinking nobody is going to show up. Maybe they’ll be so many people that the police will have to monitor.”

About three dozen people turn out. It’s Tiffani Conti’s first cash mob.

“I actually bought a little tie for my son. It seems like everybody walked out of the store with something.”
Lander’s was chosen by the mob through a vote on its social media accounts. Ann Powers says she feels lucky, because this infusion of new customers helps her store stay afloat.

“Cash mob is good for any downtown little local business. We’re dying. We’re dinosaurs.”

The idea started last fall when Buffalo blogger Chris Smith envisioned using the purchase power of flash mobs to help small businesses. He set a few ground rules: each person should try to spend $20 and pay full price for items. He says this sets cash mobs apart from other social media deals.

“What you get with a Groupon or a Living Social deal is a one-time injection. And it’s not necessarily a profitable injection. You’re having to cut your prices so significantly. With this, because we ask people to spend a little time in the store, we encourage the entrepreneur to spend a little time with the shoppers, talk about the products they have. It builds a relationship that you don’t get with a coupon.”

Now, nearly 200 cash mobs have cropped up in 35 states and a handful of countries, mostly through word of mouth online. Andrew Samtoy runs the national cash mob blog from Cleveland. He says the idea has spread so quickly because it’s not just about helping small business.

“We’re consciously using social media to get people to actually be social.”

For example, Cleveland’s group has a rule every mobber should try to meet three new people. Samtoy says these events bring strangers together, to rally around a common cause.

“A lot of times in this day in age people are counting the number of friends on facebook or twitter and thinking that somehow relates to the number of friends they have in real life. We want people to get out from behind their computer screen and meet face to face and form what could be considered a real community.”

But Chris Smith admits cash mobs might be another fad, since technically no one’s in charge of the movement. Each local mob will determine its own way forward, he says.

“The best way to let something grow is to not worry about it. Let people take ownership of it and do it a way that works for them. As long as you stay true to the original concept, you’re always going to be successful.”

Which means anyone can plan a cash mob anywhere, anytime. But Smith recommends calling the business first just to make sure it’s okay.

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