Coffee shop owners in Sydney revolt against Wi-Fi

22 Jul 2015

As featured in DisruptiveViews

Coffee shop owners in Sydney, Australia are having second thoughts about the merits of offering free Wi-Fi service to customers that take up seats for long-periods of time and drink too little coffee.

“The love affair between coffee shops and laptop-wielding customers may be dying out as coffee shop owners revolt against Sydneysiders’ demand to be wired up,” says the article, sure to get nods of agreement from shop-keepers in many other countries.

Once seen as a necessary evil for attracting customers, free Wi-Fi has almost single-handedly defeated the concept of coffee shop chats involving two or more people. Now it’s all about solitary-seaters and their mobile devices chatting with people far away that aren’t drinking the local brew.

Some shop-keepers have opted for time restrictions on free access of around 30 minutes, presumably how long it takes to enjoy a brew, but will that only serve to annoy customers in the midst of sending a critical email or serious chat session?

Coffee shops worldwide have grown in popularity as escape points from the crowded office, a secondary meeting room, mother’s rest areas, shoppers retreats and ideal study spots for students with disruptive home environments – so why pick on free Wi-Fi alone as a revenue stopper?

Anyone in the restaurant industry will tell you that table space is their main revenue earning asset. Turning over the seats is critical in turning over the cash register. Tables of four earn a lot more than single or dual occupancy tables, etc. But would they shoo away people who have sat longer than 30 minutes after finishing their coffee and muffin? Not likely.

According to some interviewed in the article, the Wi-Fi limitations have worked. One owner is quoted as saying, “The change was immediate. People interacted more, they started to listen and talk to each other properly and weren’t constantly distracted by a screen.”

Hmmm, I’m not so sure it works that easily. Here’s my simple rule of thumb – if I am alone I will seek out a coffee shop that has Wi-Fi, but when with company it really doesn’t matter as talking is the objective.

However, the coffee shop issue may only be a temporary problem. With connectivity becoming more or less ubiquitous, most people will have 3G/4G/Wi-Fi access wherever they are anyway. It won’t matter if coffee shops have Wi-Fi or not, they just happen to be the best place to sit and catch up with emails, Facebook or whatever.

If coffee shops want to change that they should offer less comfortable seating, or none at all. Rome, the home of the espresso culture, has bars you stand at when you take your ‘hit’ or they charge extra if you want to plant your buttocks on the few stools available.

Maybe charging for seats by time is the answer or having table meters or an app allowing you to top-up if you want to sit longer. Stupid idea, right? Almost as stupid as coffee shop owners taking away something that customers have become used to, even dependent on.

It will be interesting to see how the ‘experiments’ work out in Sydney and what is acceptable to both business owners and customers in future. For me it’s all just ‘a storm in a teacup‘ or should I say coffee cup?

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