UK

Can Cash Mobs Save Our ShopKeepers? New Volunteer Movement Aims To Fight For Your High Street

10/08/2012 10:42 BST | Updated 10/08/2012 11:38 BST

Volunteers are banding together to help save our high street heroes using a new social media movement called a cash mob.

Similar to a flash mob - where individuals use social media to decide when and where to descend to perform a piece of performance art - a cash mob sees individuals using Twitter and Facebook to encourage consumers to spend a few pounds at a local shop.

Yesterday saw London's first event, taking place at Pages of Hackney in Clapton, London - just over a mile away from Stratford's Olympic village.

Eleanor Lowenthal, owner of the bookstore, was contacted by cash mob enthusiasts Means of Exchange to ask if she'd be willing to offer her store as the first location.

"My understanding is they selected us because we're an award-winning bookstore, situated in an Olympic borough, that's not seen any benefit from the Olympics," she said.

"The last month we made no money at all; August is always tough, but this year's been dire. We are punching above our weight and have diversified into events and second hand book sales, but you have to work so much harder to survive. You can't just expect people to walk in off the street and pay your bills."

Lowenthal's concerns are shared by local residents. Hackney and the surrounding areas were the focus of the world a year ago as one of the epicentres of the UK's riots. Lowenthal herself had to board up her shop. She claims the tourist boards do little to encourage visitors to travel to east London boroughs.

london riots

The Olympics, which Hackney's residents were told would have a positive effect on their high street, has had no impact at all. If anything, the numbers of visitors are lower. In the words of one local resident, John Lockhart: "One perception is it's like they've put a ring fence around the Olympic village - nobody leaves the security perimeter. Hackney Wick, which is adjacent to the park, has become an industrial ghetto."

It's unclear when the first cash mob took place, and when the term was first used, but Means of Exchange believes credit should go to a US blogger called Christopher Smith, who arranged a cash mob at his local New York wine store on 5 August 2011. Events have taken place across the US and Canada, and increasingly around the rest of the world.

But could they take off here? Means of Exchange chief Ken Banks believes they could.

"I've been told to steer away from the term 'Big Society'," Banks joked, referring to the movement's less than glittering success. "What we're looking to do is to repackage consumption, rebuild communities and reconnect neighbours."

Banks argues consumers have become disenfranchised with the high streets since the arrival of large, often impersonal, super brands.

"Look at the success we've seen with the Mary Portas Pilots - this [cash mobs] are only a small part, but it's part of a bigger movement to empower local communities and encourage consumers to look after their high street."

He continued: "Today's been massively enlightening; social media's great for creating a buzz, but I've realised today we need to do more to get the local media involved."

Banks plans to produce guides on how to better promote future cashmobs and flyers which organisers can print off and hand out. With the wider project of www.meansofexchange.com, he also plans to expand; it is hoped a new app called 'xchangr' will allow people to volunteer their skills and time in exchange for other people's help later.

The most important question to ask though, was whether London's first cash mob can be deemed a success; a blueprint to roll out across the UK.

Between 12 and 15 people were in the store at any one time during the event (although it must be said a few were from a PR agency helping to organise the event), but when it comes to the figures, the result is positive.

Lowenthal typically sells around five books on a regular day's trading; in less than an hour yesterday she sold more than 80, bringing £500 to her till.

"I don't see why anyone wouldn't want to do this," Lowenthal responded when asked if she'd do it again. "The majority of shoppers haven't been here before, who knows, they might come back."

Could cash mobs become the economic saviour of our high streets? Or have shoppers simply stopped caring about supporting local conveniences? Share your views below.