Cash Mobs for Small Businesses Backed by Credit Unions
When supermarket giant Whole Foods Market opened a store in a Sacramento neighborhood, a local food co-op immediately noticed a dip in customers.
While students at nearby University of California-Davis flocked to the natural and organic food grocery store, businesses like the Davis Food CO-OP experienced a slight drop in sales after the defection, said Chris Blackman, marketing manager at the $205 million Yolo Federal Credit Union in Woodland, Calif.
“They’re located in a kind of a unique and weird corner and sometimes, people may forget that it’s there,” Blackman said.
It was part of the reason that Yolo FCU linked up with the Davis Chamber of Commerce and the Davis Downtown Business Association to host a cash mob last November in the G Street Shopping Center in Davis, Calif.
Patterned after flash mobs, which generally involve a group of people gathering together in a public space to dance or engage in other activities to unsuspecting onlookers, with cash mobs, participants storms the doors of a preselected mom-and-pop business to buy products and services in an effort to support local firms, according to CashMob.com.
Over the past year or so, credit union, league and CUSO employees and members have caught on to the growing trend by either hosting or participating in cash mobs. For many of them, the goal is to show support of small businesses while opening up opportunities to court and ideally, sign on new business members.
Blackman acknowledged how difficult it was to initially judge how successful last fall’s cash mob was, but after talking with a few of the businesses days after the event, she got a better picture.
“I was on site, and I saw an influx of people. Days later, we heard from businesses who said they saw more new customers coming in the door,” Blackman said. “It was valuable because it got their name out there.”
The owners of Monticello Seasonal Cuisine, a local restaurant, are members of Yolo FCU, Blackman noted. While getting more businesses to sign on with the credit union would be a plus, it’s not the motivation.
“We just think it’s the right thing to do. Cash mobs are good for the communities because for some they’re competing with larger corporate stores. These are small family businesses who rely on repeat customers.”
The $53 million Ohio Health Care Federal Credit Union in Dublin, Ohio, hosted a cash mob last summer at Gallo’s Pit BBQ as part of a year-long initiative from the Central Ohio Chapter of Credit Unions to boost sales at businesses throughout the region.
As a result, the restaurant was able to increase sales on Aug. 16 last year by 66% over the previous sales one week earlier on Aug. 9, said Nikki Gallo of Gallo’s Pit BBQ.
“It’s right in our backyard. We’re not reaching out to a franchise. We’re looking for those businesses that started from the ground up,” said Jaime Crooks, marketing director for Ohio Health Care FCU.
While the credit union made a strategic decision not to offer business loans or services a few years ago, Crooks said the cash mob not only shows support for local firms, it may indirectly help the cooperative stand out among its bank competition.
“We have extreme competition with one specific bank because they reach out to the health care industry. That’s our core,” Crooks said. “Banks are taking a very aggressive stance by setting up at various sites at health care companies and by opening accounts on the spot.”
Ohio Health Care FCU takes a softer approach by encouraging online services in an industry where employees tend to work a variety of nontraditional hours, Crooks said. By having a member tie-in either through a select employee group or a member that owns a business, the cash mob is another way to build presence.
“It’s a great way to support businesses especially when the economy went through rocky times,” Crooks said.
In late April, the $152 million Mountain Credit Union in Waynesville, N.C., hosted its first cash mob at Baabals Ice Cream and Coffee Shoppe. The cooperative started creating buzz for the event through its Featured Business of the Month highlight on its Facebook page, said Chris Angel, business development director.
Mountain CU wants to support businesses that currently have accounts with the credit union and going forward, take the cash mobs to the 10 counties that make up its field of membership.
“We don’t have a huge amount of business accounts but we want to keep it going about every other month,” Angel said.
Mountain CU has 133 business checking accounts totaling $1.1 million, according to Dana Thompson, marketing director. The credit union does not offer business loans, instead, choosing to see how legislation to raise the current 12.25% of assets member business lending cap to 27.5% will play out, said Angel, who has been involved in lobbying efforts in Washington.
Meanwhile, Mountain CU is gearing up for its next cash mob and has no problem with referring members seeking business loans to local banks, Angel pointed out.
“We refer folks to them for loans and they refer folks to us for things like car loans. We all feel like a community. There’s a mutual understanding.”
With more in the credit union industry participating in cash mobs, it may still be too early to quantify if the events will pay off in the long term with more business members joining and how much of their dollars they’re likely to bring over.
Still, credit unions in Michigan offered a glimpse of just how powerful cash mobs can be. More than 56 of them signed on to support CU Lunch Local last October, said Jessica Richardson-Isenegger, a public relations specialist who helped coordinate.
The statewide effort also involved the Michigan Credit Union League and Michigan CU Capital, an entity that helps credit unions work together to share the costs and expertise of offering business loans.
“When we did the post event conservative estimate on dollars spent we reported that tens of thousands of dollars were spent across the state,” Isenegger said.
For instance, the $567 million Dort Federal Credit Union in Flint, Mich., purchased lunch for their more than 160 employees on CU Lunch Local day. Staff at all nine branches of the $333 million Elga Credit Union in Burton, Mich., received the same treatment.
Employees at the $285 million Christian Financial Credit Union in Roseville, Mich., took it a step further by writing down their thoughts on what CU Lunch Local meant to them. Patty Campbell, president/CEO of the cooperative offered a $10 reimbursement to those staffers who participated in the cash mob, said Rebekah Monroe, marketing manager at Christian Financial.
“A lot of employees were surprised at how much they already supported local businesses,” said Monroe, who pitched the idea of a cash mob during a meeting last spring with Isenegger and others on how to promote the idea of credit unions supporting small businesses.
In fact, a local Lebanese restaurant that has an account with Christian Financial is a favorite dining spot for some of the credit union’s employees, Monroe said.
“Our goals are two-fold: we want to show small businesses that we are here and we can offer them loans and other services because we know we’re probably not always top of mind,” Monroe said. “On the other hand, we support businesses. It’s not like we give you a loan and you never hear from us again.”