Organized 'cash mobs’ give local businesses a cash infusion

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Moss Envy owner Ryan North, left, took an order from James and Kim Ly Curry during Sunday’s cash mob event.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Move over, flash mobs. "Cash mobs" have arrived in Minnesota -- folks who flock en masse to a designated small business, spend some cash and spread good will.

A national phenomenon born late last year to support local businesses, cash mobs are making test runs here. So far, they've been more like "mini mobs," drawing up to a few dozen folks who pledge to spend at least $20 at the chosen location.

On Sunday, a group of folks organized on Facebook and Twitter to provide some brisk business at a store called Moss Envy in southwest Minneapolis. Last week, about a dozen folks headed to Ten Thousand Villages in St. Paul in a philanthropic version of the trend: The business donated part of its proceeds to charity. Mini-mobs also spread some cheer during the holidays in downtown St. Cloud.

"It's community activism, it's philanthropy, and it's help for small businesses," said Bret Fierce, who set up Cash Mob Minneapolis on Facebook and Twitter last month.

"It's a movement gaining popularity right now. I hope to ride that wave as it gets more publicity so we can make a difference in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area."

How it works

For the past two weeks, visitors to the Facebook page or @CashMobMpls on Twitter have voted on which store they would like to "mob" that Sunday.

More than 1,000 people weighed in last week. The winner was Moss Envy, a "green" retailer selling everything from wool-filled pillows to organic baby gear.

The plan was to meet nearby at 1 p.m. and enter the store as a group. About a dozen people followed that plan.

But this was not a group of rule-followers. Another dozen or two people strolled through the front door during the next hour, perusing eco-products for home and apparel.

"I was really curious how this would work so I made an extra effort to come," said Melissa McGowan of Shakopee, who brought her family to the store after casting her vote on Facebook. "I think it creates a hype around going out and exploring new businesses. It's a cool concept and I hope it catches on."

Store owners Ryan and Tina North were enthusiastic. They brought in a masseuse to soothe the mobsters, offered free cookies and coffee, and set up a webcam to stream the event live.

"Do you know we're cash-mobbing today?" Ryan North asked customers as he rang up about $1,000 in sales in two hours.

The sales were particularly impressive, said North, because the weather was gorgeous and "people could be out having fun." Said North: "It was definitely worth it."

First mobs in New York

Unlike flash mobs, in which groups of people spontaneously organize via social media to do anything from a public sing-along to a political protest, cash mobs are strictly about shopping. The first one hit the streets in Buffalo, N.Y., last August, when a supporter of a small wine shop decided to help drum up business.

The idea quickly struck a chord with supporters of independent, locally owned businesses. Cash mobs are organized now in roughly 140 U.S. cities, as well as Sweden, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

There's even a National Cash Mob Day slated for March 24, complete with online swag such as caps, T-shirts, beach bags and water bottles.

While some cash mobs draw hundreds, such as a recent one to help an Atlanta candymaker who had been robbed at gunpoint, most are smaller operations. Minnesota groups report about a dozen folks showing up for their initial forays. But even so, they say, that's a dozen shoppers who wouldn't normally be making purchases.

Lisa Zahn of St. Cloud launched what appears to have been Minnesota's first cash mob in late November to support small businesses in downtown St. Cloud.

"I liked that it was so simple," said Zahn, a former seminary student and stay-at-home mom. "It was low budget, and it gives a nice little bump in business for a small store. A lot of us wouldn't have been there otherwise."

Mary Franke is the owner of Marishka's, a St. Cloud boutique that benefited from Zahn's organizing. "It definitely brought in business that would not have happened," she said.

But the concept is so new that it was confusing at first, she said. When Franke was informed that a cash mob was coming Dec. 3, she thought she heard "Cash Cab" -- as in the reality TV show featuring taxi customers who find themselves participating in a TV game show.

"I thought, 'What does this have to do with me?'" she said, laughing. "Am I going to be a stop on the Cash Cab?"

Having to explain the concept is a small hurdle, organizers say. The biggest problem is getting fans to do more than support them in theory, and to actually show up.

For example, a local nonprofit, Peace and Hope International, tried to build up suspense for its first cash mob fundraiser last week by dropping a series of clues on Facebook and e-mails. Followers found out the day of the event that it would be held at Ten Thousand Villages in St. Paul and the store would donate 20 percent of sales to Peace and Hope.

But there wasn't a set time for the mob to meet, just a three-hour window, and nearby parking was scarce. In the end, about a dozen people came.

"You just don't know what to expect," said Colleen Bebee, executive director of Peace and Hope. "Will it overwhelm the business? Will no one show up? ... But it's using technology to reach a younger generation for a good cause. You could do a lot of good."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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