What happens when a coffee shop gets too popular?
January 30th, 2008 - 68 Comments
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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