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Carrotmob: Green Shopping Goes Social


By Nancy Scola

Hundreds of hipsters, creatives and neighborhood folk lined up one recent spring Saturday afternoon outside K&D Market in San Francisco's Mission district where 16th meets Guerrero. They were there to test an idea: Could a swarm of targeted spending prod one local business into making concrete steps towards going green? Could activists work cooperatively with business to encourage intelligent upgrades, such as the switch to an Energy Star cooler, or the use of a skylight to reduce electricity dependence?

It's an idea called Carrotmob, and it's the brainchild of Brent Schulkin. Schulkin, whose day job involves running high-tech "corporate play" events, wanted to find a way to leverage the might of business to address the climate crisis. His idea was simple: Let a business know which proactive green steps to take, then reward their progressive actions with business--and lots of it.

Schulkin started by asking nearly two dozen local shops whether they would agree to dedicate a chunk of one afternoon's sales to making energy-efficient changes to their business. In exchange, he promised to bring in enough customers to make it worthwhile. A bidding war ensued to determine which would be CarrotMob's first target, and K&D Market came out on top with commitment of 22%. Schulkin brought in local public-private partnership San Francisco Energy Watch to audit K&D and determine where they could get the greenest bang for their buck.

Then Schulkin pulled in a crowd using the CarrotMob blog, online videos, Facebook, MySpace, word of mouth, and plain old paper flyers (a Wednesday mention on Boing Boing probably didn’t hurt). An estimated 300 shoppers turned out that Saturday. After the bourbon, chips and Lucky Charms had been rung up, K&D had pulled in a whopping $9,200--more than four times what store staff estimated the store would have earned on a normal afternoon. Applying the 22% pledge, K&D had about $2,000 to dedicate to the purchase of one of Energy Watch's recommendations: a new energy-efficient lighting system.

The natural question becomes whether the success of the Carrotmob targeted-consumption approach at K&D can be replicated and grown. The answer might lay in the answer to a different question: what's in it for business? What carrots might really make them to go greener?

What's so important about Carrotmob is the coordination, because it reduces an inefficiency in other, uncoordinated socially-conscious shopping: "mobbing" lets a business know exactly why the gods of good fortune have smiled upon it.

But a second carrot looks to me like it could increase the movement's impact also: reputation. Might this web-savvy, socially networked mob of consumer activists (culled from MySpace and sites like it) extend their influence beyond the one-day buying spree by blogging their approval of K&D and others on local review sites like Outside.In or Yelp? For some businesses, a boost in their online rep and green cred might be even more valuable than a few hours of targeted sales.

The Carrotmob concept is still evolving and Schulkin is planning a relaunch of in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Gavin Baker for giving me the heads up on Carrotmob.

Photo credit Megan Prusynski.

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Cool.. good idea! I'll consider doing that here in the Arcata/Eureka California area.

Posted by: greensolutions on 13 Jun 08

Did the purchases reflect the same values? Were they really "Lucky Charms" and bourbon?

Posted by: David Foley on 15 Jun 08

David -- K&D is a full-service liquor and convenience store, and shoppers were free to pick up whatever they liked off the shelves, from food to booze to household products. Take a look at the videos shot that day ( that day, and you'll see one of the carrotmobbers joke about buying Bourbon and CFLs ("together for the first time.") The focus wasn't on *what* was bought, but on generating enough spending to help the store's infrastructure go green.

The target of the first campaign was all along going to be a local liquor store, which raises the issue of supporting that sort of business -- especially in neighborhoods with liquor stores on every corner. It's an interesting question, no doubt.

Posted by: Nancy Scola on 16 Jun 08

That is so incredibly cool.

Who would have thunk it. Such a seemingly simple idea can have a more-than-simple affect.


Posted by: Tim Lingenfelder on 16 Jun 08 is a beta website in the Boston area that's taking a similar approach. They want to be the "green" version of Yelp where users rate businesses based on green practices.

Posted by: Laura on 17 Jun 08

I see this as well-intended, but who really benefitted in this instance? The liquor store made more than 400% of their usual sales, yet only contributed 22% of that towards their efficient lighting project.

My experience in the energy efficiency industry has shown that projects retrofitting old, inefficient lighting can often pay back in less than 2 years, which should make this an attractive project independant of an effort to drive in a windfall of buisness from green-hearted individuals.

Without knowing more about this project, my reaction is that it sends the wrong message to small businesses that they need/deserve additional incentive beyond better performing equipment, quick energy and coast savings, and generous utility rebates to install energy efficiency projects.

Imagine all the bourbon we'd have to drink if this was the only way to get these businesses to make smart decisions!?

Posted by: Kate Merrill on 19 Jun 08



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