The Daily Office Crowd, Part II: What’s Your Wi-Fi Policy?

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There's no question that laptop users are increasingly soaking up wireless connections and electrical outlets at coffee shops around the world, along with their lattes. Their presence creates a challenge for owners who want to have a wi-fi policy that maintains a welcoming atmosphere but also want to encourage the necessary customer turnover for a profitable business.

We already know that coffeehouses can provide just the right amount of background noise to help laptop-toting customers concentrate, and fewer interruptions than they’ll get at the office. Which is why many coffee shop owners have no intention of limiting wireless access to daily workers that may camp out and work for hours. Their tables and chairs (accompanied by coffee) are a sought-after commodity. Large chains like Starbucks provide free wi-fi, but many don’t consider it entirely “free,” since customers’ personal data is collected when they log in—and potentially shared with or sold to other companies (as is Starbucks’ prerogative per its privacy policy).

Still, some coffeehouse owners say restricting wi-fi access has not hindered them from keeping a steady stream of paying customers walking through the door—while also encouraging more conversation and community building. But this strategy doesn’t always work, as a lack of wi-fi often doesn't stop people from plopping down with their laptops and using the data plans on their phones to work or scroll their social media feeds.

When HotBlack Coffee opened in downtown Toronto in 2016, it took a risk by turning off the wi-fi. Co-owner Jimsen Bienenstock says it affected the initial growth of the business, but now HotBlack is sought out for not just its specialty coffee but its lack of laptop screens as far as the eye can see. "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 insist they are not just trying to turn tables and keep sales up. They are also trying to maintain a certain warmth, ambience and social vibe because they know customers don’t necessarily want to sit next to someone else’s glowing screen. Also, when people have their laptop or phone to keep them company, they are more likely to take a table for two to themselves, instead of bringing a companion to sit across from them and actually talk—in person.

Some cafes opt to 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.

If your shop is located in 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. But if you’re more of a neighborhood coffee shop you might be able to get away with restricting access. While HotBlack’s success in not offering wi-fi in a downtown location conflicts with this theory, they did have to build their business more slowly than they might have if wi-fi were on offer—inherently risky. You may or may not have that luxury, but what you do have is your ear to the ground and the ability to talk with customers about their wants and needs. Ultimately, you have to decide what type of shop you want, and if table turnover and fewer electronics are more important than guaranteed telecommuter business.

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Related post: The Daily Office Crowd Part I: Why Coffee Shops Are Great For Productivity