Mobs of Cash

Grassroots effort puts spending power behind local businesses

By Andy Meek

Next month, an organized mob is planning to descend upon The Booksellers at Laurelwood.

Shoppers peruse booths at a recent Memphis Cash Mob event, held earlier this month at Literacy Mid-South. The group organizes a large crowd of people to shop at local businesses. 

(Photo: Shannon Dixon)

With cash.

Spurred by an affection for locally owned small businesses and carrying out the idea born from a consultant who saw this done in other cities, the burgeoning “Memphis Cash Mob” movement will show up to the East Memphis bookstore Jan. 12 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. for its latest show of economic force.

Participants will be asked to spend around $20, to try and meet three new people – and have fun. On the other side of the effort, the bookstore has agreed to donate 10 percent of the profits of the two-hour buying spree to Project Green Fork, the grassroots group working toward a sustainable Mid-South by helping reduce environmental impacts and supporting local restaurants.

The local cash mob effort has been picking up steam over the last few months and is part of what is an increasingly popular cause. Be it through Small Business Saturday or local nonprofits pushing their own “Buy Local” goals, the idea of supporting homegrown small businesses has a lot on its side at the moment. And already, previous Memphis Cash Mob events have supported local entities like Literacy Mid-South and Goner Records.

The local initiative was born out of something that organizer Shannon Dixon – an independent consultant taking this on as a volunteer – saw by happenstance while traveling.

“How I got started doing this is I’m a consultant, and I do some work around the country around community engagement,” Dixon said. “I had seen this model in other cities, specifically in Cleveland. And I was on a consulting trip to Syracuse, New York, poking around in the neighborhood with some community activist-type folks, and we sort of accidentally cash-mobbed this Caribbean grocery store.

“We were all taking a tour of the neighborhood on a bus. We got off the bus, went into this grocery store, saw this beautiful fabric from Ghana, and we all just started buying it.”

When they all walked out, Dixon thought to herself – “I’ll bet we made that shopkeeper’s week.”

She then was reminded about the similar Cleveland model, and that led to the obvious follow-up thought:

“I might like to do that in Memphis,” she told herself.

She put out a call to her Facebook friends. “Does anyone want to help start a cash mob in Memphis?” But the response was tepid.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s OK, I think I’ll try this anyway,’” she said. “We started with the Goner Records cash mob, which was in October. We’ve had one since then, and we have the new one scheduled for next month.”

She said “hundreds” of people turned up for the last one. She’s still trying to feel out what people’s appetite might be for having the events every month or two.

The initiative also is about more beyond the events themselves. For example, this thought was recently put to supporters on the Memphis Cash Mob’s Facebook page: “We hear many people say that it is less convenient to shop local and instead they shop on Internet sites like Amazon. Let us challenge your thinking by posting sites where you can buy local online.”

“I think it’s really important to support our locally grown businesses,” Dixon said. “They are what make our community unique. They are what up-and-coming districts in Memphis are built on. South Main may have American Apparel now, but it certainly didn’t start out with that. It was built on small businesses.”