Until recently, I did most of my blogging out of my favorite coffee shop. The arrangement was perfect. I got to have my favorite drink, chat with my barista friends, and do a lot of writing, all under one roof.

(from Flickr user jypsygen)

I was able to do this because there was wifi, more than enough outlets, and plenty of space to sit down for a little while. To me, it's frustrating to read articles like this, from the LA Times, about coffee shops that are pulling wifi and outlets from their stores in an attempt fight against free loaders.

Who are these free loaders? They are typically described as lonely, unsocial 'techies' who behave like jerks. From the article:
"People were sitting all day long on one cup of coffee, blocking tables. Nobody was talking, and there was no table turnover. It was hard to make money," owner Nicola Blair Nook said. "I turn off the Wi-Fi and in 10 minutes all the computers are gone."
Many coffee shop owners apparently feel the need to "fight back".
Cafe owners have tried a variety of tactics to foil Wi-Fi squatters. They put out signs that ask laptop users to share tables or point them to nearby Wi-Fi hot spots such as public libraries. They hand out wireless passwords that expire in an hour. They cover electrical outlets (less effective now that customers come armed with laptops sporting longer battery lives or with spare batteries).
To me, this inspires one question: why isn't one of the 'tactics' simply asking the customer to buy another drink? Or respectfully explaining that other people would like to sit down? These attempts to 'foil' WiFi squatters suggests that business owners often prefer a passive-aggressive approach to dealing with abusive customers, which, frankly, doesn't seem to work.

I don't own a coffee shop (although one day I might like to) and I'm sure there are challenges that the typical customer, even someone who visits all the time, has no idea exist. I get that. But doing things like covering up outlets and turning off the Wifi is essentially punishing 20 good customers to take care of 1 troublemaker (I'm making up these numbers). The 20 good customers are probably sympathetic to the shop owner, and annoyed that some jerk is perpetually hogging space. But the old middle-school explanation that one bad apple ruined it for everyone doesn't quite fly.

The situation reminds me of the 'seat hog epidemic' going around on public transit systems across America. Most of the articles talk about the passive-aggressive approach that upset riders take: making nasty faces, posting photos on the web to 'shame' the seat hogs, etc. As it turns out, many people have come forward and pointed out that all it usually takes to sit down is to politely asking the seat hog 'may I sit down?'.

I'm a strong believer that coffee shop design matters a lot. Shops that get a lot of solo customers can design themselves to cater to solo customers. Shops that do a lot of take-out can similarly design themselves for that audience. I'm not sure whether completely removing Wifi will backfire or not, a prediction that many will defend; but it certainly makes you wonder if it was the best decision that could have been made.


    On August 16, 2010 Anonymous said...

    Perhaps coffee shops could print a password on a receipt that is good for a reasonable period of time - say 2 hours and then expires. This way, people who wish to stay, simply need to go and make another purchase in order to enjoy for wifi time?

    It's really not fair to expect busy coffee shop employees to subjectively have to decide who has been there too long on a given day.