Coffee and conversation. What a concept.
Cafés were among the first to flip the switch on free wifi. Now some pioneering coffeehouses are pulling the plug.
Blame the coffee shop squatters.
For the price of a small coffee they monopolize a café table for hours on end. They commandeer electrical outlets with multiple chargers and tangled trails of power cords, connect to the free WiFi, and settle in for the workday. Why not? The bathrooms are clean, the downloads are fast, and somebody left behind today’s newspaper with an empty crossword puzzle. They can nurse the cool dregs of a single cup of coffee for the better part of a day.
What once lured customers has become a drain on the bottom line.
The squatters monopolize precious seating space, too often crowding out paying customers. With fewer free tables, turnover rates and food tabs are lower as customers who might linger over a sandwich or a pastry choose to just grab a quick cup of coffee.
The impact is cultural as well as economic.
Customers are put off by the office-like atmosphere with its silent sea of laptop screens and the occasional one-sided cell phone business call. The squatters will look up from their keyboards to glare with open hostility at small children, and have been known to shush energetic conversationalists.
Cafés have struggled to strike a balance.
Some change their network passwords every few hours giving access only with a fresh purchase. Others cover electrical outlets, shut down routers during peak business hours, or shrink the size of café tables to tiny cups-only pedestals. Extreme measures were taken at one Vancouver pop-up that created its own electromagnetic dead zone by wrapping the café in a giant metal cage that channeled a signal-blocking static electrical field. Most coffee shop owners are just wondering when Sony will start selling its newly-developed electrical outlets that can limit access with time-sensitive user authentication.
What’s fair and reasonable? According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, 32% of Americans think that a person who has purchased coffee should be able to use the shop’s free wifi for as long as they want. 38% think that 30 to 60 minutes after they finish their drink is reasonable. Only 18% think you should use it only for as long as you’re drinking.
Proving it’s not just for Luddites, Eater has a list of 17 wifi-free cafes in tech-loving San Francisco.