Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What Can Cash Mobs Teach Us?

I was recently introduced by a friend to a small store in Los Angeles that’s part of the Downtown Women’s Center.  Made By DWC is a boutique store that sells goods and products made by low-income women.  While I really want to root for a store with that kind of a mission, I made a passing comment lamenting how long before it probably goes out of business.  “Well they just got cash mobbed, so they’re doing pretty well this month,” my friend said.  I thought of a few comebacks but ultimately settled with “What the hell is a cash mob?”

“Cash Mobs” have quickly become a new phenomenon born out of the internet’s “social media” phase.  The idea, widely credited to Chris Smith of Buffalo, is that small businesses get a boost from an organized “mob” of customers who meet and coordinate through online networking.   The concept has so far been put to use in various areas around the country and met much success.  Made By DWC had 35 people from LA Cash Mobs purchase a total of $1200 in a couple of hours.  More interestingly, thanks to a self-imposed rule that cash mobs have to buy everything at the offered price, the practice is more profitable for businesses than turning to the recent Groupon craze that enables customers to buy as much as they can for as little as possible, usually resulting in the business never able to make up the money lost to discounts.  Unlike the Groupon fad, cash mobs have a few things going for them to be attractive to a small business struggling in a small market; no discounts needed, traffic guaranteed to purchase, and online marketability. 

That marketability can’t be overstated; instead of a crowd of people stomping into your store to get a deal, unaware and probably uncaring of who you are and why you chose to open this business, cash mobs are people flooding your store with the intent to improve their local business community, and therefore want to know more about you.  Smith elaborated this in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition:

"What you get with a Groupon or a Living Social deal is a one-time injection. And it's not necessarily a profitable injection," Smith says. "You're having to cut your prices so significantly. I think with this, because we ask people to come and spend a little time in the store, we encourage the entrepreneur to spend some time with each of the shoppers and introduce themselves, talk about the products they have. It builds a relationship that you don't get with a coupon." – Chris Smith to Daniel Robinson, March 29th, 2012; WBFO.

So what does this have to do with manufacturing?  This kind of community-support sentiment is prominent and very powerful all over the U.S. right now, born out of a general awareness as to the damage the Recession did to American enterprise.  Advocates are realizing the never-ending possibilities of the internet when it comes to organizing events, and it’s these kinds of efforts that are not only giving local retailers a financial boost, but also giving them a chip in the social media PR game. 

I wonder what the manufacturing landscape would look like if it had its own brand of cash mobs.  I realize it’s a bit crude to try to fit the concept of customers gathering together and attempt to support their local glass factory  by buying from it directly.  However, consumers could certainly help manufacturing businesses that may suffer from the kind of brand obscurity that comes with, well, being a manufacturing business.  Tweeter, Facebook, and all the rest of the bells and whistles on the ol’ computer box have taught us that the individual web-surfer can now double as a bona-fide marketing firm.  Cash mobs directly giving their business to manufacturing may not be feasible, but online groups “mobbing” a business to profile it most definitely has a positive impact on its brand awareness. 

Hey, even an indirect cash mob could work.  What’s to stop cash mobs from inundating a store with their foot traffic with the intent of buying a product specifically because it’s made with a part or parts from a local manufacturing business?  I like this idea because it hinges on customers’ growing consciousness of how their products are assembled, as well as an improved line of communication between manufacturing and the end customer, something severely lacking and, in my opinion, contributing to people not knowing more about job opportunities in the industry.

So while the internet is indeed producing its fair share of failed experiments, the cash mob movement may be one that hasn’t even begun to show its true promise yet.  Its very popularity proves that there’s momentum out there for pro-business advocacy on the grassroots level.  Instead of just letting the software and retail score another point in the PR game, manufacturers should stop following their lead and meet the consumer base directly on this one.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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