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Wi-Fi in Coffee Shops – win-win or win-lose?

Amidst the recession, some cafe owners are actively discouraging laptop users. Does wi-fi availability in coffee shops allow customers to abuse or overuse the facilities? Or are the cafe owners doing themselves harm, given that wi-fi is just one of the sticky aspects of a ‘hanging-around’ culture that the cafes have encouraged in the first place as part of their business model?

At the end of 2006, in an article about market segmentation, I’d proposed a customer segment called “Cafe Workers” who look at coffee-shops as inexpensive real-estate to work out of.  These include professionals, start-up entrepreneurs, small businesspeople and travellers into a city. (Click here to open the PDF file of the article “Slicing the Market“.)

But now, amidst the recession, apparently it is one positioning that some coffee shops don’t want to buy into. The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a backlash from many coffee shops towards customers who enjoy the use of free wi-fi and spend hours occupying tables that should be turning over more. (No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users). Many of the comments on the article are sympathetic towards the cafe owners, calling such customers “moochers”.

While the dismay of cafe owners over customers who abuse the facilities is understandable, could they be doing themselves harm by actively discouraging laptop use? Wi-fi is just one of the sticky aspects of a ‘hanging-around’ culture that the cafes have encouraged in the first place as part of their business model.

By and large, wi-fi enabled cafes around the world are more expensive than the ones which are not. Wi-fi goes along with the more premium positioning, and they should be able to balance the space premium lost on long-term wi-fi users with the grab-and-go customers who are paying higher prices without using the facilities.

That said, in specific cafes or at specific times of day or days of the week when there is a bottleneck, they should be able to limit the length of the IP-lease.

All it takes is a bit of thought and a tiny application of technology, not total disruption of the business model.

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