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What happens when a coffee shop gets too popular?

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I ran into an interesting situation last weekend and I’m curious to know what you think. Budding entrepreneurs, here’s your chance to come up with a brilliant solution to a business problem.

First of all, if you disregard my 8 Stupid Frat-Boy Business Ideas post and start a coffee shop, you may one day encounter this problem. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

Last weekend, I was writing at a coffee shop where lots of people bring their laptops for the free wifi and food.

As I was writing, one one of the staff began telling people with laptops that the wifi would be turned off from 11:30am – 1:00pm. “Why?” one woman asked.

The poor waiter. He explained that the manager had instituted a new policy of turning off the Internet during peak hours. I’m pretty sure this is to dissuade people from camping out for hours at their tables with laptops. I’ve personally seen people come in, look around, and leave because there were no tables available. (In fact, this happened to me the very next day.)

The woman was furious. “I wouldn’t have come here and bought all this food if I knew I couldn’t get my work done,” she said angrily. All the waiter could do was apologize.

I see both sides of this decision.

Clearly, the manager wants to maximize revenues and doesn’t want to turn away potential customers (with $) because all the tables are full of laptop users who won’t get up (or buy anything). They’re worried, in other words, about turnover, one of the reasons that even popular restaurants can go bankrupt. Like I said, I’ve personally seem them lose revenues when prospective customers left because there were no tables left. If you measure success on a $/minute metric per table, the laptop users are probably very low-value customers.

On the other hand, the customers who bring their laptops in are loyal customers who, I’m sure, tell their friends about this coffee shop. This new policy squarely affects these loyal customers. Worst of all, there’s no way to announce this policy without sounding like a real asshole. For example, I saw a guy with a laptop come in 11:20am. What happens when the Internet goes down 10 minutes after he sits down? What are you going to say? Is the management going to put out flyers on all the tables saying, “There will be no Internet from 11:30am – 1:00pm” (because we want you to leave)?

Here are some possible solutions:

  • Continue allowing free access with no time limits. This maintains goodwill but you’ll probably bleed dry
  • Charge for Internet access (Starbucks does this)
  • Create a points system that gives people a variable amount of Internet access based on how much they’ve bought (“3 coffees = free week of Internet,” etc). My friend Chris Yeh came up with this one. As he said, “If you’re going to screw people, at least give them the impression there’s some way for them to avoid the shaft.” (Check out his brilliant blog)

What would you do?

[Update]: I told the coffee shop’s manager about this post and sent her a link. She responded by email: “Thank you so much for the link, and the feedback. It is a difficult balance to wanting to please the paying customer and the loyal regulars. I forwarded your blog to the owner, XXXXXX, in hopes that we can come up with a solution that everyone is happy with. I really appreciate you taking an interest, and enjoy talking to you on the weekends!”

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  1. I think charging for wifi may have severe unintended consequences. Unless the cafe is making big bucks by charging for wifi, people who pay will be entitled to sit in the cafe all day long and not buy anything. It’s like the Freakonomics story about the day care center that started charging parents who were late to pick up their kids – more parents were late!

    The points system could work, but it would be hard to administer.

    What about having a set number of laptop tables during the mid-day rush? Say only half of the tables in the cafe are for laptop users during that time. If you want wifi, you can share those tables with others, but you have to make room for customers who want to eat or drink.

  2. There is an easy solution to this, while perhaps somewhat inconvenient. I’ve implemented this system in a couple coffee shops before. I install a hardware solution that controls access to the shop’s wireless network. To get access to the network you have to get a code from a waiter/server/clerk. These codes are unique per customer and can optionally have a time limit attached to them.

    The system I’ve put in place before does require some sort of purchase every hour (time period is determined by shop management). So when a laptop user’s time runs out, they simply purchase more food or beverage and receive a new code.

    I mentioned earlier the inconvenience as this does mean the patron would lose their Internet connection at the end of every specified time period and this might create undue burden upon the shop staff if wireless access demand is high. However, this is the ideal compromise for coffee shop owners everywhere to maintain that high value customer ratio.

  3. Charging for internet (maybe scale it up during peak hours) makes a lot more sense than turning it off completely.

  4. Argo Tea already has a system similar to your third suggestion. When you purchase something, you get a piece of paper with a password on it. You use this password to access their wifi network, and after (I believe) an hour, the password expires. If you want to stay online, you have to keep chugging tea.

  5. Personally, I’d segment laptop users to a specifc section of the cafe during peak times allowing non-laptop users to sit and inform the customers of this policy. I know space if cafe’s is at a premium, but in order to please both sides without having to resort to gimmicky marketing campaigns I think this could work better.

  6. Possibly you could configure the WiFi so that the users must log in to use it. Use dynamically-generated usernames that only allow one concurrent connection and expire after a day.

    Hand these out to people as requested. Don’t hand out any starting at, say, 11:00am. Hopefully there would only be a small number of people in the place at that time (before the lunch rush).

  7. When I lived in Paris, many cafes offered free internet access. They would give you a card with an access code that was worth a certain amount of time, maybe 30 minutes. After that, you had to go ask for another. They didn’t charge for the later cards, but it was enough of a pain that it would keep me from staying overlong.

    I think a better way to do it would be the last suggestion: for every $3 spent, you get 30 min of internet or similar. That would keep customers going back to the counter for another coffee or pastry.

  8. I’d put a code on the receipts that is good for one hour (or two hours, or whatever) of internet access. They you assure that the people who are there for a long time are periodically getting up and buying something and the person who is there a short time, gets the access he wants.

    Amanda

  9. Good puzzle. I call one idea the freeloader light.

    Each table would have a prominent red light mounted in the center. When a customer places or receives an order, the server presses a button for the corresponding table. The light turns off.

    Exactly one hour later, the light switches on automatically, blinding the occupant while shaming them for not buying more treats during that hour. The light could optionally spell out an insulting message.

    My other idea I call table bidding.

    In table bidding, any table that has been occupied for more than 30 minutes without an order is up for a challenge. At that point, anyone can walk up to the table and challenge the current sitter to a duel.

    In the duel, each participant writes an item from the menu on a slip of paper. Whichever duelist chooses the most expensive item wins the table. Of course, the winner also has to purchase the item. In the event of a tie, the current sitter wins.

  10. Panera has a different approach than all three you mention (and it’s one that I like and seems to work pretty well for them):
    - when you sit down to get online you are redirected to a Panera page before you can access the internet. It has a link to all of the legal jargon BUT right there in front of you it will say something like (this is not word for word – they actually have it worded really well) “Please sit at the smaller tables if possible so larger parties will be able to utilize booths. Also please be aware of peak business times…”

    They could have gone as far as saying “… if you want this service to remain free” but they didn’t. You have to click “agree” before you can access the internet.

    I know that there have been a couple of times I’ve gone into a Panera, sat down at a larger table because that was the only thing available (or in a couple of cases the place was so empty when I got there I didn’t feel like I was causing an inconvenience) and I moved to a smaller table when it became available or when business started to pick up.

    Once though I did actually have to leave though because the internet connection had slowed to such a crawl because of the number of people on laptops that it was wasting my time and annoying me instead of being a nice break from the home office. It wasn’t super busy that day but at a glance I counted 11 people with laptops which was a few too many for their little old DSL line at that location.

    Oh, and did I mention that because of how they are handling the internet access they get extra chances at branding and can also advertising to you? Check out the tasty looking connection page (this is the page you get after clicking “agree”):
    http://www.panerabread.com/wifi/connected/?bc=1176&pid=1

    One more thought on the wireless customers. I think people who sit down with laptops would be more inclined to get back up and get more food sometimes IF they felt safe leaving their laptop or “closing up shop” just to get one item. They could probably sell additional to these people if they either had some way of securing your laptop to the table or better yet sent someone out during slower times to see if they wanted to order anything else or needed their coffee refilled. If not done too often then it wouldn’t be a disrupting annoyance and might make the business more money or prompt some people to move along.

  11. You could have a designated section for users with laptops. That way you could manage how many users were “camping” out in the coffee shop. This would allow the loyal, laptop using customers to have a place, and also provide an area for the casual, “not going to stay there for hours” customers.

  12. Build an coffee bar with high stools, disconnect the wi-fi, and have cables coming out of each “station”. So that way the laptop-folks aren’t taking up an entire table for their work (which could accommodate two or three people), but they still have a place to chill out and suck down coffee at. Plus, it would provide a closer relationship with their “bartender-barista”, building goodwill and hopefully selling more coffee.

  13. - limit the bandwidth so that it’s slow enough when the coffee shop gets crowded (there are technical limitations to this – what if, for instance, a customer watch youtube video which is a huge bandwith eater)
    - implement a shiny electronic board that will display for each table how long the internet has been running….

  14. Have the staff/waiters come around and ask them if they want anything else, on a regular basis. This will help shame them into buying more, and they won’t have to leave their laptop unattended to order more.

    Set it up so the page that you get when you first connect to the wifi lets you order drinks and food without getting up. This could be set up so after a set period of time, access is blocked and that page comes up again, and if you order something else, the internet starts working again.

    Get smaller tables to fit more people in, and put up dividers on the 2-person tables so two strangers can sit there and work without invading each others space.

    Rebrand the coffee shop so instead of being called a coffee shop, it’s a remote office that also sells coffee and food. Then you can charge something for admission, as well as selling coffee.

  15. The first thing I would do is setup a captive portal system so that I would have the tools to monitor the situation and enforce any policy there after. Having the proper capabilities will offer give a greater amount of flexibility in your policies. Some ideas might be: limit the maximum number of concurrent connections so that you can guarantee there is more available seats than laptop users (unless of course one person brings six laptops), enforce bandwidth policies to discourage people from camping out for bittorrent purposes (I consult with an ISP and we can tell from graphs that there is considerable p2p traffic at the local coffee shop), arrange the situation (seating, outlets, lighting, etc…) to subconsciously influence the laptop users, and maybe something like offering specials geared towards people who you know will be there for hours such as bottomless cups of coffee priced to a point that works.

    As someone who works from home much of the time, I would love to see a place that was setup more for this type of use. Perhaps having more business ‘facilities’ such as a printer, fax, a meeting area or two, etc…., and charge based around this concept. I heard of something like this once, maybe called social-coworking or something, I can’t quite remember.

  16. simple — use a router that can limit bandwidth, and do it. make the free wifi useful for customers, but not that productive for people who are camping out for hours trying to get lots of work done.

  17. I like the time allotment idea. You could also throttle the bandwidth in general. People will come in to get their work done but if they need a lot of bandwidth, will get frustrated and leave. A cafe isn’t an ISP, after all, and they shouldn’t have to provide enough bandwidth to watch streaming tv shows.

    Another idea is to limit the number of power outlets Re-arrange the seating and furniture so unused power outlets are stopped up. Let’s see how long people can use their notebooks without a constant power feed… Subtle, but effective. I know I’ve left because my battery was running down and available outlets were taken.

  18. The best local coffee shop near me (Chocolate Cafe) is located within a mile or two of Emory University. Which is to say, there are a LOT of laptop users vying for their free wifi and tables. When you order a drink, they ask if you’d like 1, 2, or 3 hours of wifi, and you get a corresponding code that gets you hooked up, as some other commenters have mentioned.

    I’m not a cafe-laptop type, but 1-3 hours seems plenty generous. When I’ve stopped by for the best chai in town, I’ve never heard anybody grousing about the limits.

  19. South Beach Cafe in SoMa has this policy, but they have very limited amounts of space, and mostly larger tables.

    It sounds like this is an issue of cafe real estate. If there are too many larger tables, and not enough smaller tables, than wi-fi users will be inclined to use up more real estate and dissuade other customers from sitting, buying, and enjoying the cafe. Since wi-fi tends to be more of an isolating activity, the cafes that offer plenty of single space seating usually can accommodate both types of customers with ease. Proper signage like: “Free wi-fi at the bar along the wall only” would work. This way, precious 2-top and 4-top tables that can accommodate lunch patrons are available for socializing worker bees without illuminating wi-fi access entirely.

    I also think it would be a proper filter to print out a new login and password for wi-fi access on each receipt, or affix a sticker, write it, whatever is available for the economics of the cafe, and change it frequently (possibly daily). This extra security step will require wi-fi users to buy something before they use the wifi.

    Another idea: each time someone logs in to use the wi-fi, they enter their email address (Breugers in Pacific Beach, San Diego does this), and each wi-fi patron can receive updates from the cafe through email. If there is a coupon on a new bagel spread or if the free wi-fi hours are changing, patrons will know about through friendly emails with coupons and new policies. This way, there are no surprises.

  20. At the Bridgehead cafes in Ottawa, they print a passcode on every receipt that’s good for about an hour or so of wifi. You can still sit there all day, as long as you keep refreshing your beverage. Its pretty simple, and it works. There are enough other benefits to being there that the hassle is an acceptable compromise.

  21. hernameisaphrodite Link to this comment

    I think I would do this: build another coffee shop a block away. Repeat 10,000 times.

    I actually really like the points system; I think that’s pretty clever.

  22. I guess from a customer point of view if the owner would just tell the truth and tell everyone that there will limit on using the internet because there are too many people coming at a certain time would do the enough.

  23. I think paying for internet access is the best answer but could be hard to implement after free access has been given. It could be worth the effort if the business finds it has tables filled by a single group in the time that normally could have serviced 3 or more groups. One trade off could be pay for internet but provide free or discounted coffee – not lattes or fancy coffees but brewed coffee.

    Another option is designating areas for surfing – similar to smoking/non smoking sections. Again not totally ideal but what if you had a section that was conducive to surfing with more of a bar feel than tables. The owner might even be able to add capacity with long skinny tables and stools instead of chair.

    Last, up the atmosphere quotient. Add music, cute glasses or mugs, funny wait staff routines – anything to make the atmosphere fun and inviting to guests- why? Because the environment is still friendly and fun (similar to a bar), but not one where a lot of work can get done. This would still inspire people to come and eat but if real work is needed – it wouldn’t be the place to be.

  24. Without knowing a ton about the exact cafe in question, I think I would attack the problem in a couple different directions:

    - First, I would take a look at my cafe’s layout. Can we optimize the space better than we are already? Are heavy Internet users taking up large tables because there’s no small tables left or simply because there’s more room to work? Are there open small tables, but no larger tables for the groups to sit? Can we add a more smaller tables to open up a few larger tables? Based on the description, it sounds like *all* of the tables are being used, but maybe we can better utilize the space.

    - I would continue to offer free wi-fi for all customers during non-peak hours.

    - I would password protect the wi-fi during the peak hours. Heavy Internet regulars could purchase a monthly pass to use the wi-fi. Customers could also purchase a one day pass good for the 1.5 hours of peak time if they didn’t have a monthly pass. When you purchased the Internet time or showed your pass, you’d get the daily password information to connect.

    You will probably lose some customers, but you have to consider the opportunity cost of constantly losing incoming traffic. The heavy Internet users are essentially getting some free office space to work with the tea or coffee, so I see having them pay for peak access Internet as fair. If the shop closes, both the customers and the ownership lose.

    - I would be honest with the customers about why you have to make this tough decision and give them a fair warning to adjust accordingly before making the switch full time.

    I would also constantly monitor and adjust based on the effects of the change.

  25. I’d designate a few tables to be used for people with laptops, and the rest of the tables would be designated laptop free during peak hours.

    You could adjust table usage accordingly to allow for more or less laptop usage.

  26. Charging for wifi creates the problem that people will not linger, which could lead to an extra round of coffee or two, and it could drive away customers and, as you said, the profits in it probably aren’t that high. The taking away wifi approach during lunch is probably also a bad idea, because it’s equivalent to making the wifi prohibitively expensive. Starbucks pulls it off because they’re Starbucks and in part people are paying for the name.

    A Points system is just a logistical nightmare.

    Shaming customers is a terrible customer relations decision, so I’d be inclined to just not do it. Besides, the odds are there’d be at least one big scene per day when a red-faced eighteen year old waiter is getting screamed at by some angry patron who feels entitled to sit there as long as they want.

    Creating hard lines sounds good, but then you run into problems with turning away the laptop crowd. It essentially divides your customer base into two groups and needlessly turns away customers that want to use their laptop but there isn’t space, even if there’s an open table.

    The Panera idea seems workable; at least the percentage of customers that are likely to ignore it outright is small enough that it doesn’t create a problem.

    I guess it would be helpful to know what people are doing with their laptops. If they are just sitting there for an hour after they finished their coffee, then you’ve made your profit off them and there’s not as much point to worrying about angering them by asking them to leave, whereas on the flip side if they continue to drink coffee then they’re paying customers as well. It sounds like the former is the situation, but I’m just not sure. In that case, estimating “time to drink a cup of coffee while toying with a computer” and giving them that much time on the internet with their cup of coffee would probably be the best system, even if it’s hard to implement.

  27. I would try something similar to the points system, a sort of reciprocal credit system:

    I charge, say, $10 for all day wifi access. When you pay, i give you back a $10 gift card for my coffee shop. You can immediately use it to buy yourself coffee, snacks, etc. Or you can keep it and spend it tomorrow. You can even give it to a friend, who might then become a new customer. (I guess you can’t, however, come back tomorrow and use your gift card to buy more wifi…)

    If you sit around all day and buy nothing, at least i’ve collected some extra revenue from you. And from your perspective, the wifi is still free, i’m just time-shifting your in-store spending habits.

  28. Lots of good comments already, but I think two key points have been unrecognized, although, the Panera bread comment highlighted it some. First, while you’re laptop customers may be freeloaders, or near enough, most will probably prefer that the business succeed. They don’t want to harm the business by using its services, which is a really good clue that you should be open with customers like Panera is. Ask them to be considerate of the business going on, and do what you can to limit you footprint (like an environmental pitch) on the business as you take advantage of the free-wifi.

    The second point is more a question of, “what is your business?” Free wifi is great, but then can you still think of your business model as a coffee shop? Are you still a coffee shop at this point, or are you now a service provider who also has snacks and treats? Or, are you something different? If the business can’t define what role the register sales and the service of wifi plays in defining the business, then it’s going to always have a problem.

    Frankly, I don’t think you can be a coffee shop anymore if you’re offering free wifi, but I doubt most coffee shop owners make that mental shift. What impact does this have on the business? It changes the environment, it changes how you want to setup your ambiance, it changes how you want your waiters to interact with your customers, it changes a lot of little things that will have a large impact, and I’m not sure it’s as simple as, “charge for wifi,” or “put limits on the usage,” or any other practical, but limited solution.

    What business is the shop owner in by selling coffee and wifi (albeit free wifi)? That’s how this discussion should begin, and continue.

  29. You can buy off the shelf turnkey solutions like the ZyAir G-4100 (http://us.zyxel.com/products/model.php?indexcate=1103876296&indexFlagvalue=1021876859) that can be preprogrammed for an expiring 1 hour password. Buy anything and the person at the register simply pushes a button and a password is printed. The only downside is that the person behind the counter needs to keep consumables in the printer. (anyone who has had to deal with a line of guests and deal with a register printer can know how this sucks)

    - Turning off the wireless is unacceptable.
    - Charging for it only frustrates people.
    - Forcing people to buy something, even a cuppa joe, at least encourages buying product and turnover. Puting an hour expiration at least means that the guest has to buy another cuppa joe and nurse it through the hour. There is still a potential for abuse.

    The other thing that I saw, which drives me even more nuts, is a coffee shop covered all of its power outlets. Wireless is still free. But you are limited to your battery. I personally really hate this.

  30. There’s alot of technology and social engineering involved in lots of the solutions mentioned, but I think the simplest (and maybe least popular) would be this:

    Raise your prices for food and coffee.

    - Pure freeloaders might not want to pay more.
    - Loyal customers will then effectively be paying a wifi tax for the luxury of having space and wifi on demand.
    - To-go customers will simply add revenue (if their numbers don’t drop too sharply).
    - There is little to no cost in money, time, or technology to implement this.
    - Customers will still have continue to have a hassle-free connection experience.

  31. I’d either raise the coffee prices or turn of the power outlets during peak hours.

  32. I should point out that when I left my suggestion, the earlier comment proposing EXACTLY the same thing was not visible.

    And here’s an idea: instead of WiFi, network jacks. Limit the number.

    I suppose an economist would ask, where are the incentives? People have no incentive not to sit around all day surfing (er, working). How can we make it worth their while to move along?

  33. I would implement modular seating and dining areas, so that you can rapidly transform the space to better handle peak traffic. It would be interesting to implement this in a way that the patron’s can modify the environment themselves. For example, remove all large tables and just allow for groupings of small tables. Maybe make them lightweight and on casters, so that they can easily be moved when needed.

  34. Puzzle solved. Keep the wifi free. Charge a premium for power. Keep the power plentiful, but put a sign up explaining the policy. Be frank about it, tell the customer all the angles. Put little placards on the tables with outlets nearby. Anyone sitting there for an hour will eventually read the placard. The placard and signs should explain the business problem of free wifi and non-eating, drinking customers sitting there for hours on end.

    This upfront solution should endear the regular, loyal customers to the business and produce empathy to plight of the business owner.

    With all this in place, the coffee shop could probably even make the system honor based, like the $1.25 coffee to go at many Panera locations. That eliminates the logistical overhead.

  35. One example and one devil’s advocate comment here..

    Tryst, a popular DC coffeehouse, has a policy of no wifi on the weekends. They have cute signs up that say to stop working on your laptops because it’s the weekend. However, this and the other solutions don’t get at the core of the problem that will be more of a problem as time goes on:

    - it doesn’t curb extended laptop use (with or without internet)
    - it doesn’t address the issue of people staying forever even without a laptop (though I find this to be less of a problem as people aren’t as immersed in most other things for as extended a period)

    There was a coffeehouse I went to (Kiss Cafe) in Baltimore where, for a while, they had a policy of $5/hr minimum. It was a pain, but it was along that idea.

    If you work efficiently you can get by on internet spurts every once in a while, or using your cellphone for internet, or, more and more, of using EVDO or similar services for internet access anywhere. I mention this because my primary reason for going to a coffeehouse is for a change of scenery…but I provide my own internet access and multiple batteries. So none of these schemes can stop me; while I think I’m not the typical customer, battery life and internet access are going to be better and easier as time goes on. That means that this stuff will ultimately not just be a matter of creating barriers, as the other ideas suggest, but a matter of creating and enforcing a policy.

  36. I would just dedicate an area in the shop as a laptop area during peak hours. This area would be dedicated to the folks on laptops and no one else could use the tables there, nor could they use their laptops elsewhere. If all the tables where taken, you had to go. This way there would be tables open for new customers and you don’t alienate your loyal customers with convoluted payment and timing schemes.

  37. Lots of good suggestions posted already, here’s another take…

    FIRST: During peak hours (maybe 6 PM – 9 PM) allow for 30 minutes of free access with a purchase using the network pass-code printed on a receipt described above. But then charge for internet access in half hour blocks (charge a rate that is roughly commensurate to what you want your average customer to spend in your shop per half hour – $2? $3? $4?). Ideally, allow the customer to pay for additional access from their seat.

    Customers accustomed to getting free access get it after buying their Joe, but will understand that during busy hours it needs to be limited.

    If a customer wants extended access during peak hours they get it, for a reasonable fee. If they pay for access AND buy more coffee & scones, all the better!

    Many people will not want to pay for access and leave, making room for a customer who wants to buy one of your $6 designer coffees.

    SECOND: During off hours (maybe 10 AM to 6 PM and 9 PM – midnight) allow unlimited free internet access.

    This will attract customers and keep the good will of your bohemian/grad student crowd. Who will sup $2 latte upon $2 latte and rave to their grad student/bohemian friends about your shop.

    Also, your shop will be full-to the rafters with caffeinated clientele at all hours, making passers-by wonder if they should try-out the coffee that seems to be so consistently popular!

  38. [...] a matter of hours, there are more than thirty comments with all kinds of suggestions and ideas. People of all backgrounds living in many different places took the time to think the problem over [...]

  39. after reading 10 responses I kinda got tired of the hardware ‘solutions’ … how about just put out a few signs that politely ask people to not occupy the tables for more than 30 minutes during peak hours? Or have an ‘internet minimum’ policy that you’ve got to buy a drink for every hour you’re going to be online during peak hours? As long as it’s written and posted, people won’t act like the world is ending when you ask them to give up their seat.

    That or limit the number of AC plugs… once everyone’s battery dies they’ll have to leave! =)

  40. I think the measure of the solution should be if it’s low cost to implement and how much training involved for staff or customers. I think you can copy the solution from other service industry that has similar problem. I’m think about gym during peak hours and grocery stores during peak hours.

    Here are two different proposals.

    1) hand out cards with last purchase time that users are to place on the table. When the stores gets busy, waiter can ask the user with the oldest last purchase time to make more purchase or leave. Or during peak hours, ask anyone with cards more than X hr ago to make more purchase or leave. This is the gym like solution.

    I like this solution the best, it very easy and low cost to implement. The makes customer aware that time has value and creates a leveled playing field for all the customers that comes in at different times. It’s self-enforcing, the customers can see every other customers last purchase time.

    2) Setup express seating section. Maximum X minutes or be asked to make more purchase. This helps to ensure available seating for people that just want to hang out and relax for a little while. This is the type of customers that you want to encourage so you offer them better seating (by the window with view, power plugs, etc) This is idea is different from designate seating for laptop users. I can be a laptop user that just want to check my email for a few minutes while drinking my coffee. The difficulty here is not laptop or no laptop. It’s the time spend on the table. So create a express line like in the grocery stores to encourage this behavior.

  41. [...] Ramit made a post here regarding a coffee [...]

  42. I know this may sound lame, than all the great schemes of charging extra for this and that, or an attempt to “manage” people (you can never manage people). How about just telling the truth and announcing a “common good” policy to all customers, “please be kind and share all the tables.” And also, they can announce the problem and tell customers to be courteous enough to leave the shop for others to enjoy the coffee shop when they have been there for, say 1 hour.

    To me, appealing to the common good in people because they’re all loyal customers seems to be a better idea than ENFORCING a rule. The customers all LIKE the shop, so appeal to that feeling.

    I know this may or may not work depending on the amount of space and how large the tables are… (Could get bigger tables and more chairs?) This should mitigate the problem and solves the part of being an asshole.

  43. From business point of view I do like the solutions that do not require extra investment into the infrastructure.

    So I’d try:

    * Informing customers
    * Shutting down wi-fi for peak hours
    * Make peak hour wi-fi regulars-only by requiring a passphrase to be inputted and giving that to the regulars you like

    I would not slow the connection speed because: a) it’s not likely that downloaders are the ones taking all the table space and b) it might make people who get a cup of coffee in order to quickly check their mail (or somesuch) to stay longer.

  44. I’d say a combo of many of the ideas above:

    1. A designated wi-fi zone for campers. This can be enforced only from 10 – 2 or something.

    2. “Friendly” staff that come bug you if you’ve been there too long

    3. A technical solution where individual users are slowly tapered off bandwidth-wise until they buy something

    4. Some sort of “VIP” program where you get to opt out of #1 and #2.

    5. Only support Macs :) This’d cut down to the coffee-drinking machines anyway :D

  45. Lace the coffee with ex-lax?

    The problem is that a lot of customers of the cafe use it as an informal meeting place. Then others use it as an office. This is one of the reasons why cafe’s don’t necessarily compete on price with comparable eateries.

    Taking away the internet right at prime time forces people to leave. What if these are the same people that were siting most of the day, but come lunch time would order a sandwich..

    I vote for the point system. Maybe, A coffee = 2 hours, add in a snack = another hour, add in a sandwich = 2 hours..

  46. There is a coffeehouse in Seattle that is packed pretty much from when they open early morning to 10pm everyday.

    They offer free wi fi with the exception of the weekends!

    That was a shock for me and I haven’t been back since because I’m in Seattle on the weekends with my laptop. When I got my computer my thought was “now I can hang out at my favorite coffee shop.”

    Ok.

    If I were a coffee shop owner I’d have tables reserved for computer use and tables reserved for service only during peak hours. Almost like smoking and non smoking sections. When the busy part of the day comes you could break out the little table tents that say “Reserved between 11:30 to 1:30pm.” Or have them out all day for potential wifi users to not get too settled during busy times.

    I don’t think it would take away from the ambiance since the lunch crowd is generally in an out in a relatively short amount of time and will feel like they are being taken care of. The table signs will serve as a warning for the computer users to pack it up or move to another table. Regulars I don’t think will have a problem with this.

    The free wifi users can go about their business.

    Generally the hours in Seattle for wifi are early morning to late evening to accommodate customers and there are plenty of wifi cafes that are always busy open to close.

  47. Caribou has a good system: free for one hour and then you have to pay for it. Not necessarily for the food but for the wireless access.

  48. If revenue is what management is worried about (and I’m sorry to hear that it’s the case), it would be a good idea to let the source of the problem – from a managerial point of view, that would bee the Internet providing – solve things up. Link the access server data with the revenue for each table – this way, the system can keep statistical records that track mean revenue for each client/time spent.

    After the manager traces the MACs of it’s loyal and profitable clients, the server can then react by granting access to some users or not. The system could be programmed to: offer a limited number of connections, depending on the time of the day (i guess that you don’t really want zero connections), restrict unprofitable known clients from accessing the web, limit the number of unknown users in a given time frame, build up behavioural patterns and make decisions based on them. As I see it, the so-called problem, is actually an opportunity.

    When undesirable clients try to connect to the Internet, they won’t be able to, even though some other clients are surfing the web. When asked, the waiter could easily say that he or she is sorry, and that it’s a technical problem, most likely on the user side. When precious clients connect, the first thing they see could be a welcome-back message.

  49. I would say you have to purchase a minimum of X dollars of food to be able to use the internet. Similar to jazz lounges, you can enter for free, but they will tell you that you have to purchase X amount for drinks/food, and the waiters come around to collect your orders. There’s also instituting a time limit much like the gyms have limits per machine. I think that would work without annoying customers too much.

  50. A lot of times people come up with wicked complex solutions/ideas that make perfect sense but get lost in translation because people won’t take time to understand it.

    You have got to keep this simple:

    *Free WI-FI during non-peak hours.
    *Charge for WI-FI during peak hours.

  51. How about a hybrid solution?

    Using a router with QoS (Quality of Service) capabilities – have one small bandwidth pipe by default. For those that chose to buy something, put an access code on their receipt that gets them 2(?) hours of access to the full speed stuff?

    Or hey – how about just having some events that encourage customer interaction. That’s a novel idea!

  52. These people have no right to complain, they are in business to sell you a cup of coffee and maybe a danish not to be your free ISP. Most people go to a coffee shop to get coffee, not to get on the internet.

    Majority rules here. The business owner has every right to limit the access as he sees fit. So tell all those pretentious freeloaders to shut the hell up.

  53. Cover/remove all public power outlets. Customers only get as much time as their machines have battery life (about 2 hours). This doesn’t require any costs of instituting a complicated point system, nor does it alienate customers.

    I don’t think anyone has suggested this yet, but I skipped some comments in the middle. If they have, I apologize for repeating.

  54. I would just reward the loyal customers, afterall this is where your return revenue lies. So why not just get the loyal folks on a point system and when they sign up they get a freebie of sorts. Then for the random people coming in if they want benefits they sign up as well. With regards to the

  55. If I were a coffee shop owner, I think I would look for a solution thats as transparent as possible to the customer. All customers are welcome in my book, laptop or not. How could I cater to each without proposing confusing rules or putting it on my staff to ‘shame’ my customers?

    A WiFi bar is an excellent idea proposed above… lots of seats are wasted with laptop users settling into tables meant for 2 or 4 people. A creative approach to table layout could make this so much less of a problem.

    The login page (like Panera’s mentioned above) is a wasted opportunity for many coffee shop owners. If a laptop user logs in at 11:30am, why not show them your lunch specials when they login? Show coffee shop events? Collect emails and marketing data?

    Consider giving premium conveniences of interest to laptop customers such as a small fee to send documents to a printer, or maybe the ability to place small ads for a fee on the coffee shop “launch page” so coffee shop entrepreneurs can promote their services?

    We need to approach the problem more as an opportunity to cater to two different types of customers, and not turn either away. Arbitrary rules like “no wifi between 12-2″ and “no credit cards” etc. to me just show contempt to your customers and turn people away.

  56. I’d just switch out all the chairs with the most uncomfortable things I could find (but that still fit the mood of the place). If you could stand to sit in the thing for 3 hours, then you deserve to have free internet access. I’d also make sure the main draw wasn’t that you could sit there for hours, but instead make sure people were coming for the coffee and food, so that they wouldn’t mind the chairs.
    I also like the time-sensitive code idea that makes you buy stuff (ideally you’d get more time if you spent more – if this is possible I’d make the higher margin items worth a little more time – maybe 30 minutes?). But I’d have a warning that pops up with 15 minutes left, then 5 minutes, so they know they need to buy something! Maybe send a waiter over when time is getting close to running out so they don’t even have to go get something (probably more likely to impulse buy if someone comes and offers them something and they know time is running out).

  57. The owner should make the seating area comfortable, but not the kind of place where people would want to get work done or otherwise spend hours on end – think about seating at a fast food restaurant – its not bothersome, but also not the kind of place you want to spend a few hours. Also, having a waiter walking around actively asking people if they need more coffee might increase business from potential freeloaders.

  58. I would implement the credit idea with a twist…

    1. I would allow free access during non-peak hours
    2. When you make a purchase of a certain amount of money, you earn a specific amount of peak internet usage. For example, if you spend $1, you earn 10 minutes of peak usage. I’d also allow people to use previous receipts to earn time or use a friend’s receipt who may not need the time, but has spent the money. The staff would need to keep all original receipts for this to work. But it would allow the internet users to earn time for marketing the shop by bringing their friends in.
    3. During pre-determined peak hours, the internet access would shut down and users who have earned “peak time usage” would have to re-log on with a unique access code that logs there available time and their time remaining.
    4. When non-peak time resumes, users would log off, then log back on for the free usage so that they don’t use up there earned time.

    It’s a little complicated at the moment, but it solves the problem while giving people incentive to market the shop like an affiliate system would.

  59. how about just opening an Internet Cafe next door?

  60. One possible social solution: require usernames to log in to WiFi, as several people have suggested. Then have a monitor up at the front of the store that shows these usernames and the duration that they have been logged in.

    When someone comes in and can’t be seated, maybe even have a staffer stand up and say, “User so-and-so, will you give up your seat? How about you, user such-and-such?”

  61. LOL! What would I do? Never patronize the coffee shop again. That was easy.

    What is it about “good will” that business owners don’t understand?

    JP has the right idea: keep it simple! “*Free WI-FI during non-peak hours.
    *Charge for WI-FI during peak hours.”

    But since that’s a change in a policy that customers have become comfortable with, the change needs to be advertised well in advance — like, weeks in advance — with prominent signs, flyers, table tents, and even staff telling customers as they deliver drinks and food. The customer in your anecdote, who clearly had been blindsided, was rightfully angry. If I were her, I’d never go back, and I’d tell all my friends, too.

  62. Lower the heat on peak hours…I’m pretty sure that’s what Panera Bread does. I spent a lot of time there as a student getting free refills of coffee and tapping away at my laptop, sometimes from 8am till close (obsessive, i know).

    The mornings were great, but around lunch time, it would get so cold I could barely stay there. Upping the A/C could’ve been a strategy to counteract the body heat from the high volume of people at lunch, but they got about the same volume for b-fast and dinner, so I don’t think that was it.

    Another thing to do is have a limited # of working outlets. My batter life is about 2.5 hours, so that’s about as long as I would stay!

  63. First, I would study the situation to see where the bucks were; can I live without the notebook space pirates or are they a big chunk of the butter for my bread.

    Then its just simple math and common sense: are you in the coffee shop business or are you in the wifi business. Which one makes the money.

    If you are convinced the laptop loiterers are not worth it then charge them a fee that makes the lost table space worth it. If they are your best customers then give them flyers to hand out to their friends and a free drink while you’re at it.

    ** HERE’S AN IDEA (albeit a frat boy one): Rent cheap warehouse space so you can park 500 laptoppers in the same room and sell coffee to them too. If you had the right space: location, price, etc it might work.

    Bill Mossburg

  64. Starbucks now has got a new coffee WLAN deal with AT&T. So NO T-Mobile anymore in Starbucks.

  65. Well I think if the wifi cutomers don’t ad much value but surely does generate some revenues, then one must consider opening a seperate room for them considering the financial requirement and the breakeven time for the same. If such a option is pursued then the existing location can be used solely for the customers who add value.

    Others can just pay maybe half of what one pays at other wifi stations and recover remaining from the products they buy.

  66. A local coffee shop uses what I think is a pretty good system. Whenever someone buys something, they get a receipt with a key for free internet that is only valid for an hour and a half. Therefore, people who need internet need to buy something every so often. Its still free internet, but you have coffee or whatever every couple hours or so. Pretty fair.

  67. Laptops users, the new smokers of the world eh? ´Go on give them a section that makes them feel like the anti social smokers ;-)

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