Spring 2012
Cash in on Cash Mobs By Heather Johnson Durocher

A grassroots-induced retail phenomenon means good news for your gift shop. Find out how you can create lasting positive effects from a cash mob.

A typical Thursday night, during the middle of winter nonetheless, isn’t an especially busy time for Steve Presser’s store. “I’d be lucky or happy to do $150,” says Presser, who owns Big Fun Toys in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

But earlier this year, a cold February evening proved to be anything but typical, thanks to a “buy local” movement that’s popping up in cities across the country and world, and is giving independent retailers like Presser a big boost to their bottom lines. Not only did Presser’s sales top $1,400 in just over an hour, he met and mingled with dozens of existing and new customers. “I noticed with the people who came in—about 60 strong—I am guessing almost half hadn’t been in my store before. That was a very big plus,” he says.

What exactly would drive so many people into a locally operated shop on an otherwise normal business day? They all were part of a “cash mob,” a group of shoppers organized to spend at least $20 at a specific, local store. The trend, which started in 2011 and quickly spread to numerous regions of the U.S. and overseas, is putting into action the idea that buying local is key to revitalizing a community.

The driver

“Cash mobs are set up to support local business by members of the local area who want to see independent businesses survive,” says Lynn Switanowski, of Creative Business Consulting Group in Boston, MA. “The goal is to support businesses that have been shown to support the local community in the past and pay it forward by supporting them with sales from the cash mobs.”

A cash mob usually gets its start through Facebook and Twitter. The idea: supporters of “buy local” select a business, set a date to shop and show up at the store as a group to spend a designated amount, typically $20 per customer. Shops are notified ahead of time so owners can plan accordingly.

While scores of Facebook pages have been created by cash mob participants in communities around the country, anyone can start a cash mob, says Doug Fleener of the retail and customer experience-consulting firm Dynamic Experiences Group in Lexington, MA. However, ideally the organizer is someone other than yourself if it’s a cash mob for your store.

“It would be very odd to say, ‘Hey, everyone is gathering at 9 a.m. to come shop my store.’ Instead, my suggestion would be for you to be an organizer of doing a first cash mob for someone else in your community,” Fleener says. “Even if no one does one for you, it has to be good karma for you. And if anytime you get visibility for shopping locally, it’s going to help all retailers.”

The prep

Once a cash mob is set for your store—organizers should give you a heads up a few days or more in advance—you’ll want to be prepared for the crush of customers. Here’s what Switanowski suggests:

  • Key in on best sellers that represent what the store is about. Setting up merchandise based on best sellers, with focused signage around these items would be smart.
  • With participants generally spending around $20 each, hone in on merchandise to support this price point while showcasing what you do best. If you have enough time to re-order best sellers within the price points they are looking to hit, then pay for overnight shipping and get the items in stock.
  • Out of best-selling items, or running low on them? Take orders that night and offer to deliver or ship to participants free of charge.

Cash mobs are most successful when shops on the receiving end are active participants in their communities, Switanowski says. “You have to be participating in your community already, you have to have a presence on social media and it has to be real,” she says. “One of the first steps is follow other people who are doing it. Mention other cash mobs if you see them, and share the information with your community to help it go viral.”

For Presser of Big Fun Toys, the experience was amazing not only for the cash infusion, but also because he and his wife Debbie were able to spend time with shoppers after the cash mob event ended. Already active in their community, the couple found themselves meeting an entirely new group of people who likely will return to their store.

“We joined up with many of the cash mob participants at another locally owned place for a beer and some engaging and inspiring conversation,” he says, adding that many of the cash mob participants hadn’t before frequented the bar which is known in the community for its specialty wines and beers.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to waken up neighborhoods, communities, anybody to supporting local businesses,” says Presser, who is looking forward to switching sides and participating as a “mobber” in the next cash mob in his community. “I love where I work and where I live. Mom and pops [stores] are so important to me.”

Heather Johnson Durocher

Durocher is a northern Michigan-based journalist who writes frequently about business for newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to USA Weekend, Woman's Day, Parents and American Baby. Visit her website at HeatherDurocher.com

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