With telecommuting and the gig economy in full swing, laptop users can be found soaking up wireless connections and electrical outlets at coffee shops everywhere. This creates a challenge for shop owners who want to keep a welcoming atmosphere but also need customer turnover to maintain a profitable business.
But there are coffeehouse owners who have limited wi-fi access without hurting their business—in the name of encouraging conversation and human connection. But this strategy doesn’t always work, people can still use the data plans on their phones to put their laptops online.
When HotBlack Coffee opened in Toronto a couple of years ago, it did not offer wi-fie out of the gate. Co-owner Jimsen Bienenstock says it slowed the business' growth, but now HotBlack is sought as a refuge from technology with a side of great coffee. “It took us longer to become established, but once we reached critical mass, it has become a self-fulfilling virtuous circle,” he told the The Globe and Mail.
Bienenstock and other café owners say they are not simply interested in table turnover. They are also trying to maintain a human, social vibe because they know customers don’t necessarily want to sit in a sea of glowing screens. Some limit wi-fi availability to 30 minutes during busy hours, or restrict it to bar/counter seating. While most customers will understand, others will no doubt be irked.
Your strategy may depend on where your coffeehouse is located. If you're in the middle of a business district, declining to offer wi-fi could be a deal breaker for passersby who would otherwise stop in to get some work done. (HotBlack's success bucks this theory, but they did have to grow slowly). But if you’re a neighborhood coffee shop you could more easily restrict access.
You may or may not have the luxury of choosing exactly how free wi-fi is doled out, but you do have the ability to talk with customers about their wants and needs. Ultimately, you have to decide what type of shop you want, and whether table turnover and fewer electronics are more important than guaranteed telecommuter business.