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The Buffalo Cash Mob multiplier effect: social events that support and promote local businesses

The word goes out on Twitter: the name of local shop or tavern, an address, a adte and a time. At the appointe hour, dozens upon dozens of customers appear at the business’s doorstep, with money in hand. Maybe a TV news camera crew shows up as well, to document that latest Buffalo Cash Mob.

Local businesses make money on the spot and gain new customers. Consumers learn about establishments they might otherwise have overlooked and meet the proprietors. It’s simple and perfect.

Chris Smith, the founder of Buffalo Cash Mobs and an online columnist for Artvoice, tell us a little about this little stroke of genius.

AV: How and when did Buffalo Cash Mobs get started?

Smith: In August of 2011, I read an article on Techcrunch which laid out the problems with Groupon, LivingSocial, and other social couponing services. While these services can provide a solid return on investment for medium-sized or large business, they can have a negative effect on the bottom line for a small business. Offering extravagant discounts to lure people through the door can hurt overall margin, and it’s really not the best way to introduce a new business to a potential customer. The initial interaction is based on unsustainable prices and offerings and doesn’t create a relationship with the customer, it simply reinforces the relationship between the customer and the coupon service. I thought there had to be a better way.

Flash mobs are fun and trivial ways to bring people together offline for a group sing-a-long, improv sketch, or goofy re-enactment. I thought that a flash mob with a purpose, supporting local business, would be a fun thing to try in Buffalo. Let’s be honest, people in Buffalo love shit like that. I needed a name for the idea and Buffalo Cash Mobs were born. I announced it late one night on Twitter and asked my 2,000 contacts if they’d be interested in supporting the idea, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Two weeks later, we had 120 people show up at City Wine Merchant on Main Street to spend $20 each. I was blown away by the reaction.

AV: What’s the basic idea?

Smith: It couldn’t be more simple: Let’s bring 100 people to a locally owned business to spend $10 to $20 and have a good time. The retailer is not asked to make any discounts or specials available, just offer your goods at regular prices. We want customers to linger in the establishment, spend some time getting to know the retailer and build a relationship that lasts beyond the day of the event.

AV: Tell us some of the places that have been mobbed in the past. What kind of benefit have those places seen?

Smith: We’ve held cash mobs at chocolate shops, book stores, wine shops, bars, food trucks, clothing shops, and jewelry stores. What has been consistent in the feedback from retailers is that they see a significant number of people returning in the days and weeks after with friends and family. They want to share with everyone this cool, new store they’ve found. And since they now have a relationship with the retailer, it’s a one-to-one connection that just can’t be generated with a coupon.

Sometimes, I feel like a bit of a matchmaker between retailers and customers—they’ve found each other in a crowded marketplace. The other aspect of organizing a cash mob is generating media interest on the day of the event. If I can find an angle to sell to local reporters, it generates some earned media for the business and gives them some publicity they normally can’t afford.

AV: What works and what doesn’t?

Smith: Thus far, we’ve been lucky as everything we’ve tried has worked. It seems people really want to return the investment that small businesses have made in our community. They’re excited to come out, spend a few dollars, meet some new people, and celebrate these retailers who turn a collection of buildings and streets into neighborhoods and places.

AV: What’s next, in terms of the idea? Are there other applications for cash-mobbing?

Smith: My next idea is the Job Mob. I’ve organized career fairs in the past and I was surprised to learn that local employers have hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs that go unfilled each year because the hiring managers simply can’t connect with the right people.

On the flip side of the equation, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people looking for work who simply cannot connect with those hiring managers. There are dozens of reasons for that, but one that I think is solvable. Job applicants need to run an obstacle course through automated resume submission systems, front-line human resources and multiple levels of interviews before they are submitted to the hiring manager for review. The system is fundamentally broken.

My concept is, let’s personalize the process again. Once a week, we’ll highlight a person who is looking for work, has a great resume with unique skills, and use social media to spread the word. We’ll ask our readers and followers to pass around the resume, recommend the person to their employers, and simply try to utilize the inherent smallness of Buffalo to our advantage.

The more people we can get employed, the more people I’ll have for cash mobs!

AV: There are some copy-cats in other cities, right?

Smith: After our first cash mobs in the fall of 2011, a guy in Cleveland took the idea and hosted one there. After that, media attention rolled in and with interviews on NPR and in the Wall Street Journal, the idea started to spread. I had people calling and emailing me from around the country asking to how to organize a cash mob in their town. The only advice I had was to not profit off it it personally and to make it about the retailer and not yourself. We live in a generally cynical time, but a good idea born of an altruistic belief in your city can still break through and make a difference. The idea is “open source,” no one should own it, no one should profit from it, and this should be embraced by buy-local advocates as a way to promote small business, which is the backbone of our communities.

AV: Who are the next targets of Buffalo Cash Mobs?

Smith: I’ve been rightfully criticized for having a bias towards businesses on Elmwood and Hertel Avenues. It’s time to broaden the horizons of this event and look to other areas of the city for retailers. Some places I’d really love to support include Mazurek’s Bakery in the Old First Ward, GiGi’s on the East Side, Parkside Candy in North Buffalo, and Ko-Ed Candies in South Buffalo. These are iconic businesses in their neighborhoods and I want to remind people about how these places make our city a unique and special place.

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