If you’re out shopping this weekend and the store is suddenly inundated with customers, don’t be surprised. Birmingham is the latest city to experience a phenomenon called a “cash mob” As WBHM’s Andrew Yeager reports, supporters of the concept hope it’ll have people buying local.
On a recent Saturday morning Cindy Thigpen whips around plants and garden decor in the shop she co-owns with her husband. She doesn’t really stop as she bags a ceramic garden figurine or greets people entering the store.
She’s particularly excited because Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery is experiencing a cash mob.
Here’s how it works. A group of people commit to spend at least $20 at a small, independent business. They descend upon this store at a set time, usually over a 2 hour window. Cash mobs are generally organized informally through social media such as Facebook or Twitter. The first one occurred last summer in Buffalo, New York, before the idea spread to other cities and a few foreign countries. There have been at least four cash mobs so far in Birmingham. This particular one was sponsored by ShopBirmingham.com. CEO Emily Lowery is pleased with the initial response.
“When you look out here everyone’s sitting and having conversations with each other either about plants or buying locally and it’s not, you know, a big box kind of let me check out and not talk to anybody kind of experience.”
Shop Birmingham did add an incentive with prize drawings. Customers could also get a free cup of coffee at a nearby shop.
The same morning just a few miles away, Brooke Fleming awaits the start of a separate cash mob at her store – City Arts Boutique in Woodlawn. This one was loosely organized through a Facebook group called Birmingham Cash Mob. There’s no outside sponsorship or prizes, although Fleming has set up a self-serve lemonade stand near the check out. She says since this is a burgeoning, grassroots phenomenon, and her business is just a few months old. She’s keeping her expectations low.
“I would be happy with just a handful of people actually. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.”
UAB business professor Robert Robicheaux likes the cash mob idea. He says buying goods and services from local vendors keeps more money circulating through a local economy. However for the specific businesses being mobbed…
“The individual isolated instances where they might generate a few hundred dollars are really not going to impact the business all that much.”
What Robicheaux does see is a novel use of social media marketing. While it’s not clear whether cash mobs are actually reaching new customers, he says social media expands further than one might think.
“The number of middle-aged folks and senior citizens who are very, very active in social media…I just made the mistaken assumption that it was all young people and it was the millennials who were gonna dominate this media and it’s not.”
At Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery, Mandi and Jeremy Welman exit the shop with their haul. Some plants, garden accessories and a ceramic flying pig.
“Yeah, look at that! There’s our flying pig. Gonna go on the porch.”
The Welmans just got back from vacation the day before. So if it weren’t for the cash mob and an e-mail reminder from the store, they probably wouldn’t have been here.
“They mentioned free coffee, didn’t they? That’s always a perk. No pun intended.”
Since cash mobs are a recent development, most data is anecdotal. Cindy Thigpen says the event generated a lot of buzz and her store doubled its sales over the previous Saturday. While she saw many familiar faces, she estimates a third of customers were new. At City Arts Boutique, owner Brooke Fleming says five sales were probably due to the cash mob and she finished the day with more sales than normal. A “nice pop” she calls it for a business just starting out.
Future cash mobs are planned for the Birmingham area. UAB’s Robert Robicheaux says cash mobs will probably morph into something new. What that is exactly, he doesn’t know. But you can probably find out, by keeping an eye on Facebook, Twitter or your inbox.