‘Cash mobs’ mobilize to boost small businesses — and to socialize


The crowd stood at the corner of San Pedro and Boyd streets, a bustling shopping area near L.A.’s Skid Row, waiting for stragglers to arrive before descending on the store.

But this mob wasn’t an angry one. It had gathered on a recent Saturday afternoon to spend money at a small cafe and boutique.

Dubbed a “cash mob,” members of the group, many of them young professionals, had arranged the event through social media. Over the course of an hour, the shoppers plucked soy candles, pillows, purses and ornate jewelry from the shelves. By the time they were through, they had dropped $1,200 — nearly double what Made by DWC brings in on a typical day.

“We sold out of a lot of products,” said Patrick Shandrick, spokesman for the nonprofit Downtown Women’s Center, which operates the shop. This event was “more of what the holidays are like.”

Similar to so-called flash mobs — groups that assemble in public to perform often frivolous activities such as dancing — cash mobs bring together strangers. But the purpose is serious: to support locally owned businesses with a quick injection of cash.

The trend is part of a larger “buy local” movement that has emerged in response to the rise of big-box national chains that are putting the squeeze on mom and pop stores.

Los Angeles activists, for example, are mobilizing to challenge building permits issued to Wal-Mart. The world’s largest retailer is planning to construct a 33,000-square-foot grocery store in Chinatown that critics worry will hurt small, local merchants.

In San Francisco, the neighborhood of Bernal Heights created a local currency to encourage spending at participating businesses. In other U.S. communities, bartering for goods and services is back in vogue.

Cash mobs have cleverly harnessed social media to make small businesses the meme of the moment. Tough economic times have raised awareness about the plight of Main Street merchants, said Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who has written extensively on small businesses.

“Whether people will continue to organize these [cash mobs], it’ll be interesting to see,” Mitchell said. “The larger point is that this is part of a much larger trend in terms of support for the independent business movement.”

About 200 cash mobs have sprung up across the U.S. since last summer, including nearly two dozen in California, according to Andrew Samtoy, a Cleveland attorney who has become something of a Pied Piper for the movement. He organized his own cash mob in November as a way to get strangers to meet for a fun outing that would also help boost the local economy. Samtoy garnered media attention for his efforts, and he enlisted friends in other U.S. cities to organize their own events.

“If you spend money in your own community, your community gets richer,” said Samtoy, 32.

In Los Angeles, Lisa Gilmore, a friend of Samtoy’s, coordinates Los Angeles Cash Mobs on Facebook, Twitter and Meetup.

Participants agree to spend at least $20 at a local business and are told to meet at a particular intersection on a specific day and time. The name of the business isn’t revealed until just before the event to add a sense of adventure to the outing.

After shopping, participants head for a local bar to celebrate their new purchases. The business owner (and the bar) get a windfall. The “mobsters,” as participants are known, learn more about their city and meet some new friends.

By going to a local watering hole after a cash mob event, “we’re actually hitting two local businesses,” said Gilmore, who works as an online editor for Universal Pictures.

She said the outings also create a sense of community. “It’s a fun, new way to meet people outside of work,” she said. “It’s something social.”

Gilmore said she has a soft spot for small entrepreneurs; her father, now retired, ran a small plumbing business in San Diego. She said she selects businesses that give their neighborhoods character, and she demands no fees or discounts from the owners. She does, however, give them some advance notice so they’ll have enough stock on hand.

Gilmore has organized four events since December — and is planning another at a Highland Park business this month. As her group’s popularity grows, Gilmore has received a handful of requests from entrepreneurs hoping she brings a mob to them. But she said she prefers to keep the process “organic,” scouting shops that need foot traffic and marketing.

Made by DWC, the downtown store that was the target of the recent mob event, benefits the Downtown Women’s Center, which assists homeless and low-income women. Many of the shop’s knickknacks are handmade by women the center supports.

Located on a dog-eared stretch of San Pedro Street, the store is surrounded by merchants peddling toys, discount furniture and cheap jewelry out of weathered storefronts. Made by DWC has no advertising budget and has largely relied on word of mouth to attract customers. To greet the cash mob late last month the shop put out a chalkboard sign that read: “Welcome mobsters!”

Event participants Anabel Cuevas and Dexter Krishnan, both 23, stepped inside and perused the store looking for home furnishings. The Pasadena couple said they were surprised to discover that the shop had such an upscale feel.

“It’s like a hidden gem,” Cuevas said.

As they waited to pay, Cuevas and Krishnan showed off the wine bags, soap, decorative bird and zombie doll key chains they had amassed, whose price tags added up to $65.

Cuevas, who read about the event through Twitter, said the small shop offered the type of unique items on her wish list for the couple’s new home.

“We were looking for one-of-a-kind things,” she said. “Not stuff you can find at all the big stores.”