DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. You may have heard of flash mobs, that's where a mass of people invade some public space to create a scene. Well, that idea has been spun off into cash mobs, where large crowds of consumers show up at small businesses to spend their money.
But as Daniel Robison reports from member station WBFO, cash mobs are about a whole lot more than propping up the local economy.
DANIEL ROBISON, BYLINE: It's 5:00 on a Friday, and mostly quiet in Lander's Clothing, a mom and pop store in Jamestown, New York. But shop owner Ann Powers is anticipating the arrival of a mob.
ANN POWERS: We get kind of nervous thinking, oh, nobody is going to show up. Or else maybe they'll be so many people that the police have to come to monitor.
ROBISON: About three dozen people turn out.
It's Tiffani Conti's first cash mob.
TIFFANI CONTI: I actually bought a little tie for my son.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONTI: So, yup, everybody seemed to walk out of the store with something.
ROBISON: Lander's was chosen by the mob through a vote on its social media accounts. Ann Powers says she feels lucky, because this infusion of new customers helps her store stay afloat.
POWERS: Cash mob is good for any downtown little local business. We're a dying - we're dinosaurs.
ROBISON: The idea started last fall when Buffalo blogger Chris Smith envisioned using the purchase power of flash mobs to help small businesses. He set a few ground rules. Each person should try to spend $20 and pay full price for items. He says this sets cash mobs apart from other social media deals.
CHRIS SMITH: What you get with a Groupon or a Living Social deal is that one-time injection. And it's not necessarily a profitable injection. 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.
ROBISON: Now nearly 200 cash mobs have cropped up in 35 states and a handful of countries, mostly through word of mouth online.
Andrew Samtoy runs the national cash mob blog from Cleveland. He says the idea has spread so quickly because it's not just about helping small business.
ANDREW SAMTOY: We're consciously using social media to get people to actually be social.
ROBISON: For example, Cleveland's group has a rule that every mobber should try to meet at least three new people. Samtoy says these events bring strangers together to rally around a common cause.
SAMTOY: In this day and age people are counting the number of friends that they have on Facebook or Twitter and thinking that that is - somehow relates to the number of friends they have in real life. We want people to actually get out from behind their computer screens and meet face-to-face and form what could be considered a real community.
ROBISON: But Chris Smith admits cash mobs could become another fad, since technically no one's in charge of the movement. And each local mob must determine its own way forward.
SMITH: The best way to let something grow is to not worry about it. Let people take ownership of it and do it the way that works for them. And as long as you stay true to the original concept, I think you're always going to be successful.
ROBISON: Which means anyone can plan a cash mob anywhere, anytime. But Smith recommends calling the business first just to make sure it's OK.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison in Buffalo, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.