CLEVELAND — Flash mobs have been blamed as a factor in looting during urban riots. But now online activists are harnessing social media to spur consumers to spend at locally owned stores in cities around the world in so-called "cash mobs."
During the first International Cash Mob Day on Saturday, wallet-toting activists gathered in as many as 200 mobs in the United States and Europe, with the aim of spending at least $20 a piece in locally owned businesses, according to the concept's founder, Cleveland lawyer Andrew Samtoy.
"It's my baby but I'm not a helicopter parent," Samtoy told a crowd of more than 100 people gathered Saturday at Nature's Bin, a grocery store that specializes in local and organic food in Lakewood, an inner ring suburb of Cleveland.
The 32-year-old dreamed up the cash mob idea last year after spending time in Britain during summer riots that unleashed looting in cities including London, Manchester and Birmingham.
His first cash mob, in Cleveland in November, brought around 40 shoppers packing in to the Visible Voice book shop, on a welcome spree in which each of them spent on average $40 within an hour-and-a-half.
"We are kind of slow in November so I wasn't going to turn it down," said the independent book store's owner, Dave Ferrante, who estimated he made about eight times his normal take on that day.
"We have a very limited marketing budget and it brought in people who wouldn't have been here. It sounds corny but we really build a base one customer at a time," he said.
After the original cash mob in Cleveland, Samtoy's Facebook friends in other cities picked up on the idea and organized their own gatherings.
Samtoy can rattle off a list of friends from Los Angeles to Boston who were the 'early adapters' of the cash mob phenomenon.
Besides the spree in Cleveland on Saturday, gatherings also took place in Kansas City, New York, and other cities across the United States.
Samtoy's approach is to target one location bringing as many people to one site as possible but other cities have taken a different approach. "There is no science to it and there are also no hard and fast rules," he explains.
He told the group gathered in Cleveland that he has only three rules or goals as he explains them: "You have to spend at least $20, meet three people you never met before, and have fun."
Cash mob participant Amy Marke, from Independence, Ohio, came with her cousin because she wanted to support local businesses and was drawn to this event because the store does vocational training for disabled adults.
"I never do anything spur of the moment or crazy like this but I heard about it and had to come," she said.
Kelly Ziegler, co-founder of the cash mob movement in Kansas City, Mo., told Reuters activists planned flash spending sprees in nine different locations around the metro area on Saturday.
"Kansas City is really spread out. We have a really strong following on Facebook and there were calls for cash mobs at all of these areas. There are so many shops to hit we thought 'why not hit a lot all at once?'"
"I grew up in a family with a small business. I know these small businesses can't afford a million dollar ad campaign. When you spend $1 at these local stores that stays in the community," she said.
And in the Brookly borough of New York activists noted how easy they are to organize.
"It really doesn't take a lot of effort," said Park Slope cash mob organizer Amy Cortese, author of 'Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From it.'
With a large number of locally owned businesses and a culture of entrepreneurship in Brooklyn she says it only made sense to get behind the cash mob movement. "It is surprising that no one had thought to do this before," she added.
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