BUCKSPORT, Maine — A big-city plan for localized economic stimulus has come to little Bucksport.
About 30 shoppers amassed a “Cash Mob” on Friday evening at Bittersweet Gift Shop on U.S. Route 1 in Bucksport. They left with candles, statuettes, glasswork, jewelry and woodcraft — all produced in Maine. And they left their cold, hard cash.
It was likely more customers than the small gift shop usually sees in a day. Shop owner Carol Metthe said the recession has been rough on her nine-year-old business, which relocated from Main Street Bucksport last year.
“Business has been scary bad,” she said in between ringing up customers. “This will help. I know a lot of these faces, but some have been new, and we hope they come back.”
In the past year or so, Cash Mobs have sprung up in cities all over the world, including in Maine cities such as Bangor, Portland and Lewiston/Auburn. Credit for the idea is usually attributed to Christopher Smith, a Buffalo, N.Y., blogger who organized the first Cash Mob at a local wine shop in August 2011.
Smith has said the idea is sort of a “reverse Groupon,” where instead of business owners trying to lure masses of customers with discounts and deals, residents swarm a preselected business and happily pay full price. The goal is for local businesses and shoppers to develop long-term relationships that outlast the initial mob.
“[I want to] make them think once a month that you don’t have to go to Target for everything you need and everything you want,” Smith told Public Radio International in February.
Bucksport’s cash mob is the brainchild of Chris Lobley, branch manager of the town’s Bangor Savings Bank. Lobley brought the idea to the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, which took the reins and organized the event.
Leslie Wombacher, executive director of the Bucksport Chamber, said she shared the goal of Cash Mob’s founder. The Bucksport Cash Mob is about giving local businesses a boost and getting people to spend their money in Bucksport, she said, instead of the shopping hubs in Bangor and Ellsworth that are each within easy driving distance from town.
“It’s easy to get everywhere from here,” she said. “We compete with big retail markets and it’s hard for us because people just drive the other direction.”
Though no Cash Mob is the same, some norms are near-universally observed: It’s suggested that each mobber spends at least $20 (though less is OK); when Cash Mob locations and times are announced, word is spread via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook; and the chosen business is locally owned. Often, participants are invited to socialize over drinks and nosh at a nearby pub.
In Portland, Cash Mobs are organized once a month by gr8portlandme.com, which keeps a comprehensive directory of Portland businesses and highlights activities being held in the city. The organization’s office manager, Suzanne Gagnon, said that turnout has ranged from 20 mobbers to more than 100.
Gagnon said that while the Cash Mob may seem best suited for larger cities, where bodies and shoppers are easy to come by, the idea could mean more in a small community such as Bucksport — even if that means fewer mobbers.
“Cash Mob operates on the premise that you have people who really care about their community and want to actively participate and give an economic boost to a local business,” she said Friday. “It’s really tailored for a smaller community, where you may have a higher degree of loyalty to your town.”
Gagnon said big numbers aren’t necessary to consider a mob a success. After all, she said, 15 or 20 people each dropping Jacksons in the course of a half-hour is still a significant cash injection, especially because some mobbers spend more than $20.
“We had a smaller number of mobbers last week, when we mobbed Lalo’s Boutique, but they got a boost of about $600,” she said. “When you’re talking to a small-business owner, $600 is a lot of money.”
If each shopper spent only $20 — and many spent more — $600 is about how much Bittersweet Gift Shop made on Friday evening. Asked how the hourlong stream of customers compared to a normal business day, Metthe, Bittersweet’s owner, had a one-word answer: “Whoa.”
Dr. Bonnie Kline, a Bucksport resident, said it was important for her to spread the word about Bucksport’s first Cash Mob and support Bittersweet Gift Shop.
“I know what a struggle it is to be a merchant in these lean times,” she said, her hands clutching a small silver cross necklace she intended to buy as a gift for herself. “I told everyone I know. I love how, in this community, people support each other.”
Wombacher said events such as Cash Mobs are one way she hopes to make Bucksport’s “little Chamber” stand out. She said Friday night was a big success.
“To me, this is proof enough to do one next month,” she said. “We’re gonna pull the next business name out of a hat and do it again.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.