Everyone has a favorite local business. The book store where they know your favorite genre. The cafe where the muffins are always perfect. The garden shop where hard-earned advice is given for free.
Throughout the onset of strip malls and Internet browsing, these are the places that have struggled to stay afloat. And in an economy where even the big guys aren’t safe, they are often the first to fold.
Rainey Niklawski, a mother of two who operates a childcare out of her Chesterfield home, is doing something about it. She’s the founder of the RVA Local Patronage Mob, which organizes day-long cash mobs in which shoppers descend on local businesses to give them a boost in sales.
It all started last year with the story of a small hardware store in Ohio.
“My brother-in-law showed me an article about it,” Rainey says. “All these people got together and decided to spend at least $20 at the store to help them out.”
They repeated the process at other area businesses that were struggling, and it became a local tradition. Rainey was impressed.
“I said, ‘We should have something like that in Richmond,'” she says. “I was excited to see if it would fly.”
She shared the article with some friends, who were enthusiastic about the idea. In no time, through social media, they had racked up hundreds of interested Richmond shoppers and had chosen their lucky target: Farm to Family, a produce market on mechanicsville Turnpike.
“It was so exciting, such a happy day,” says Suzi Miles-Lilly, who owns Farm to Family with her husband, Mark. “It was wonderful to be so supported by the community.”
The idea had been to surprise the business with an unexpected crowd, but as word spread via Facebook, they saw it coming. And it’s a good thing they did: With extra staffing and well-stocked shelves, they ended the day with a sales total that they could hardly believe.
“We did a week’s worth of sales in that one day,” says Suzi. “Just a few days before that, the transmission in our box truck had gone out and we were wondering how we would pay for it. So we say that the cash mob saved our truck!”
To choose the next business to be mobbed, Rainey devised a pay-it-forward system in which each business chooses the next one. Farm to Family chose Bombolini Pasta, which chose Lucille’s Bakery and so on. Over the course of the past year, the mob has crowded into bakeries, book stores, tea shops, toy stores, even car washes. A new location, anywhere from Lakeside to Southside to the Fan, is mobbed every three weeks.
Kelly Hockaday, a Lakeside mother of two who has become an avid cash mobster, says the events have taken her to places she hadn’t tried before the mob.
“Pretty much all of them have been new to me,” she says. “Chocolate Cravings, Strawberry Street Cafe, and Umami Coffee & Tea were all places I’d never heard of before.I don’t necessarily go out of my way to find local businesses, but if something like this brings it to my attention, I’m definitely more likely to try it out.”
Hockaday likes that her participation means not just discovering new places for her family to try, but also supporting businesses that are born in her community.
“Everyone has to start somewhere,” she says. “Even Walmart started small. So small businesses, the ones who are keeping money in the local economy and supporting local families, deserve a chance, too. It’s also nice to think that I’m supporting someone who is following the American dream.”
Over time, Rainey’s cash mob has transformed from a spontaneous crowd event to an official entity. The RVA Local Patronage Mob now has its own logo and banner (both locally sourced, of course), making their target locations easy to spot.
It even has a sponsor. C&F Bank, a Virginia financial institution, came on board after the first couple of events.
“We were excited to join in because this is what we do,” says Teresa Weaver, C&F’s Richmond retail market leader. “We are focused on local businesses and investing in the community, and this has been a great way to do that.”
To sweeten the deal for shoppers, representatives from C&F hand out crisp $5 bills to each of the first 50 customers. For people who turned up at Carytown Cupcakes for a recent mob event, that amounted to a free cupcake breakfast.
“We are happy to be a part of it,” says Dawn Schick, owner of Carytown Cupcakes. “I had heard about the mob before, and they came to some other businesses near here, so it was exciting to be chosen as the next one.”
Rainey does all of the planning and communications for free, relying on interested participants to spread the word.She arrives bright and early at each mob to greet the business owners, hang the banner and make her own purchases – often with her husband, Kile, and both kids (Arielle, 5, and Zack, 3) in tow.
“I want my kids to learn that every person has it in them to do big things,” she says, “and that no matter how busy you feel like you are, if something is important to you, you’ll find time. I also hope they grow up and know that some of the most important things you do in this life are things you don’t get paid for.”
Between cash mobs, Rainey updates the group’s Facebook page with a business of the week and other information for local shoppers and diners.
“That lets me promote more than just one business every three weeks,” Rainey says, “and it lets me do something for a business that deserves some attention but might be tough to mob, like a restaurant.”
Across the nation, as ideas like this catch on, the results are hard to ignore: A 2011 study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that by participating in buy-local initiatives like this one, consumers have helped local businesses to collectively more than double their average revenue. Small Business Saturday, observed nationwide on the Saturday after each Thanksgiving each year, has joined Black Friday and Cyber Monday as a bright spot on the retail calendar. American Express reports that after promoting Small Business Saturday to its cardmembers, they saw transactions at local businesses go up by 21 percent.
The RVA Local Patronage Mob shows no signs of slowing down in its second year.Rainey hopes to organize a scavenger hunt around local businesses and make that another cash mob tradition. It will mean more planning and organizing in this local business owner’s already crowded schedule, but she says the work is worth it.
“It’s important to me,” she says. “This is our community, and every single dollar you put into it will come back to you.”