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"Cash Mobs" Go Global - Battle Spreads Against Chain Store Dominance

A friendly mob at 'Pages of Hackney' bookstore
A friendly mob at 'Pages of Hackney' bookstore
Mehdi Atmani

LONDON- We're at 70 Lower Clapton Road, northeast London, where David and Eleanor are manning the register. While the clock approaches noon, the machine passes the 500-pounds mark (more than $810).

It’s been ages since the two owners of independent bookshop "Pages of Hackney" managed to tally such amount, all done without any special marketing strategies. It all started 90 minutes earlier. David and Eleanor were attending to their customers when about fifty social networkers start surging into the small shop, all waving 20-pound notes, determined to spend them on a hundred or so books, and then proceed to drink a toast and walk out.

The neighboring shop owners have jealously witnessed, from the street, Britain’s very first cash mob. The concept derives from the "flash mobs," those ephemeral events organized online since 2003 where anonymous participants gather in public spaces to perform a collective good-spirited surprise. Cash mobs are meant to gather crowds online in order to get everyone to drop a few coints on a small shop in need.

The broader aim is to support independent shop owners weakened by the economic crisis and chain-store conglomeration.

Blogger Christopher Smith fathered the project for the first time in Buffalo, New York, when he reached out to the people on Twitter and Facebook with these words: "This message is for everyone with a few dollars to spare to save local businesses." A few days later, he was speaking to 300 people at a local wine shop. Their mission was to buy a couple of bottles to help the small business owner, who ended up finishing his work day $9,000 richer.

Christopher Smith is convinced that this is the best way to help preserve local establishments. "It’s far more effective than a “like” on Facebook," he says.

As the economic crisis lingers, the cash mobs have begun to spread across the US. A small group of very active "cash mobbers" from Cleveland, Ohio, are even starting to establish ground rules: The owner has to be local and give his permission. As for the participants, they need to spend at least $20 and stay for a drink at the end to celebrate the unusual commercial support. The cash mobs are creating quite a buzz on social networks, as they grow an international dimension: first in Canada, then Japan, Germany, Great Britain.

Olympic delusions

Ken Banks, creator of the website www.cashmobbers.net is particularly interested in our two owners from Hackney, David and Eleanor. They met this past August 10 in the bookshop, which isn’t far from the Olympic stadium. The games – the most expensive ever -- were coming to an end. Journalists around the world start writing about how profitable they were for the city of London. However, in the East End neighborhood, the small owners were still struggling to make a living.

For David and Eleanor, the Games represented a promise of wealth. It turned out to be a big letdown, despite the colossal public spending meant to flush the neighborhoods with money to draw the shopper’s attention. Hackney’s cash mob gave a good push to the shop, and eventually led to others.

Richard McKeever, a 54-year-old social worker, called out to Londoners, through these cash mobs, to make use of their purchasing power where it’s most needed. "Don’t go to Starbucks, they make a lot of money but they don’t pay enough taxes in Great Britain," he insists. "Go to your local stores."

Mission accomplished. On December 16, in Brampton Park Road, Harringey district, Richard McKeever managed to gather some 70 cash mobbers at Simon and Tim’s "Big Green Bookshop." In half an hour, they multiplied their revenue five-fold.

Four months after the big rush at David and Eleanor’s shop in Hackney, everything’s back to normal. The couple wants to organize cash mobs with the neighborhood shop owners, "mostly mini-markets and Laundromats," explains Eleanor. "Until now, most of these owners were oblivious to Twitter and didn’t have an Internet connection." That may start to change very quickly.

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