Chara Kingston rang up more sales at her little Halifax boutique on Saturday, March 10th, than she has on any day during the past five years. She made more money in that one day than she did on any other single day in the store's history.
Had she advertised a fantastic sale? No.
Did a busload of curio-crazed shopaholic seniors disembark in front of Love, Me, her shop that sells Canadian hand-made collectibles and jewelry? No, that’s not the explanation either.
Kingston was the beneficiary of a so-called cash mob. It’s a new trend, a play on the term flash mob. But where a flash mob features groups of people suddenly breaking out into a choreographed dance routine in a public place, a cash mob is an organized spending spree at a pre-designated local business.
"Today was like nothing I could have dreamed of," Kingston wrote in a post on Yelp.com, the local business website that helped to organize the event. "Nothing I could have prepared for, everything any small business owner should have a chance to experience."
Cash mobs are announced via Twitter. Participants know they’ll be expected to spend a minimum of $20 at a local establishment, but they don’t necessarily know where. The business owner is usually given advance notice that the mob is coming, so they can be prepared.
The phenomenon started in the U.S., but is spreading quickly in Canada. So far cash mobs have been organized in Victoria, Red Deer, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saint John, NB and most recently, Halifax.
When I heard of them my first thought was "wow, wouldn’t a struggling entrepreneur love to try and get a cash mob organized for their business?"
And sure enough, there was indeed a rescue motive behind the cash mob for Chara Kingston.
"Someone who uses Yelp told us they love this business," says organizer Ben Boudreau of Yelp.com. "They said the owner had had a rough year. Construction shut down her street for months at a time and she lost a lot of pedestrian traffic. She’s been struggling, and we thought this was a good way to show her the city cares, her customers care."
But according to the very loose rules designed by the inventor of cash mobs, Cleveland-based lawyer Andrew Samtoy, the events are not designed to help businesses in trouble.
"Some people do it because they want to save a business, and I think that’s a bad idea," says Samtoy. "If a business relies on a cash mob to stay afloat, the business model is probably flawed and they shouldn’t be in business. No business should be relying on this kind of 'charity'."
Samtoy organized the very first cash mob just last November, inspired by a trip to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the sudden mobs there were not of the entertaining variety. Just the opposite.
"I was there just after the riots last summer, and we’d seen all those flash mobs happening and how destructive they’d been," he explains.
"So I had this idea to go to my friend Candra’s shop Salty not Sweet, and if we all went there and everybody spent twenty bucks, nobody would be out a lot of money but she’d benefit a huge amount. My friend Marty said ‘hey we could call it cash mobs’. So we immediately got an email account, a twitter account and a blog within about 20 minutes."
They put together their first one in Cleveland just after American Thanksgiving, and the concept promptly took off. According to Samtoy, 135 different groups have organized a cash mob since. He’s heard from organizers in South Korea, Australia, the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Argentina, and Italy.
'The openness of it is one of the strengths. We’re not trying to control anything' —Cash mob founder Andrew Samtoy
What was surprising to me, though, is that Samtoy’s motivation isn’t just about helping small business. He’s part of a professional leadership group called Cleveland Bridge Builders, and loves that cash mobs help people develop (or even discover) their leadership skills.
"One of the best things is that we have people who are organizing cash mobs that have never been involved in any sort of leadership in their lives. They never said I’m going to run for student government, or organize a party. But then they see what’s happening with business, they want to help, and they realize they can organize an event and they can lead it themselves. It’s almost like a leadership confidence booster."
Samtoy is also a huge proponent of building communities, and loves that cash mobs bring people together, in person. In his view, too much human interaction is taking place online these days.
"I don’t think the online community is what you can call a community," he says. "Real communities meet face to face. And I think it’s a problem these days that people aren’t meeting or even talking on the phone. They base their friends on how many they have on Twitter or Facebook, and not on how many people they can go out to lunch with."
Cash mob guidelines
Samtoy has laid out some guidelines of how to organize a cash mob on his blog, including the fact that it’s best to choose businesses that are creating jobs in the community. But they really are just guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.
"We have our own ideas but we’re not dictating to other people," he says. "The openness of it is one of the strengths. We’re not trying to control anything."
If you’re on Twitter, you can find local ones with a bit of work. Typically there have CM (for cash mob) ahead of the city, i.e. @CMWinnipeg ("Create commerce, not commotion!"), @CashMobsSJNB in Saint John, New Brunswick, or @cmedmontonab ("We love local business owners! We support those businesses who give back to their community! Prepare yourself once a month to flood a business with your $20.")
But not every cash mob is a smashing success. Consider the experience of Angie Gray of Victoria BC. She organized 12 consecutive cash mobs ahead of the holiday season, putting up a Facebook page called "12 Days of Christmas — CASH MOB!."
"Over the period of about a week we picked 12 local businesses, scheduled them out over the 12 days," says Gray, a student and young mother with a soft spot for small business owners — her parents run a local coffee roastery. "We got quite a bit of media attention."
Despite that attention and 500 people saying they were going to attend the event, it didn’t turn out that way. "We had a really low turn-out," says Gray. "It was really surprising, and disappointing."
She still believes her efforts paid off, in the sense that the press coverage of her cash mobs brought attention to the value of local business. "It gave people an opportunity to think about where they were spending their money," she says.
As for Chara Kingston, who experienced the windfall of business thanks to the cash mob at her Halifax boutique, her post on Yelp.ca is full of gratitude.
"To everyone — every single person who participated — your good spirited act is something that has had a profound affect on me," she wrote. And she had a message to the people of Halifax: "Know that your money makes an impact on your community. This event is a celebration of that."
A footnote: I quoted Chara Kingston's online comment because I couldn't track her down for an interview — she left town shortly after the cash mob for a pre-planned holiday in California. She's back now though and says the comments we used from Yelp were on the money!