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Third Place: Free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, But Not Cafe Grumpy?

nolaptopThe coffee shop has long been an valuable digital oasis for freelancers and untethered workers, providing an essential mix of cake, connectivity and company. It has inadvertently, and sometimes deliberately, become the third place, figuratively located between home and work.

Last December we reported that the UK’s Pret a Manger chain was launching free Wi-Fi access — now it seems they’re set to be joined by Starbucks (s sbux), at just over 500 locations throughout the UK.

Though Starbucks has long offered paid Wi-Fi via T-Mobile and BT, as well as complimentary iPhone usage, this latest development is purported to open connectivity to anyone using Starbucks’ prepay cards.

Curiously, while at one time smaller indie outlets would offer free Wi-Fi connectivity to compete with the bigger players, it seems they’re now curtailing their generosity, just as the larger chains are starting to offer complimentary access.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some stores are now covering up electrical outlets and limiting the time that customers are allowed to use a laptop — unless they’re eating or drinking something. It seems that in New York City, the recession has driven idle workers to nursing the same cup for hours at a time — behavior that’s starting to impact stores’ businesses.

Coffee shops in New York in particular — one independent chain of stores is aptly called Cafe Grumpy — seem to be leading the charge in withdrawing perks from their customers. This might be more understandable when you learn that some frugal customers are starting bringing their own food, cups and teabags.

There’s always been an unwritten social contract between web workers and store owners: Workers help make a place look busy and spend enough for owners to ignore the overhead caused by their usage of connectivity and power, while cafe owners provide a “demi-office” environment for the workers. When someone tries to take take advantage of such a delicate balance, it’s only understandable that the relationship begins to break down.

Sadly, as CNET’s Rafe Needleman illustrates, independent stores owners are likely to lose this battle as larger chains draw workers away with their drift towards free connectivity.

Personally, I believe independent owners can be more creative in supporting the untethered — perhaps providing low-cost subscription plans for access to various resources is one way to go, or arranging blocks of time or events to support web workers. These are all personal touches that are harder for larger chains to match.

Do you think the coffee shop/web worker social contract is equitable? What can be done to keep a balance?

14 Responses to “Third Place: Free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, But Not Cafe Grumpy?”

  1. It’s really a tough call, I think. I can see both sides of the argument: owners have to be profitable, and they can’t be profitable if people are just showing up, sucking their electricity, and not buying anything. But, freelancers do make the coffee shops look busy and once you find a favorite spot like this, you tend to stick with it for awhile, so they’re loyal.

    If my local coffee place offered a monthly “subscription”, where it included unlimited Internet access and some other benefits, I’d totally be down with that. Small, local owners can’t go the route of Starbucks. They just don’t have the means. So if they’re willing to support me, I’m willing to support them.

  2. I think there’s business opportunity here.

    Fortunately, I’ve been very lucky in many neighborhoods I’ve lived in to have either a chain or indie shop within walking distance – it’s almost a prerequisite for me.

    What would be awesome? A combination work/coffeeshop. So, mostly, it’s a regular coffeeshop. However, in the back, there’s mail services using their address ala UPS stores, a hipster conference room you can sign out if you’re a member (all managable online since these are going to be web-based workers), as well as your common crowd. Members should get a 10% discount on drinks as well as another perk.

    I use Starbucks all the time, and there’s multiple ways to Wifi. For instance, being an AT&T ‘net customer, you get free wifi here in the US at Starbucks, as well as I have my rewards card (which I’ve gotten ahead on about 3x over in my estimation).

    The future of work is independent – and it needs to be served.

  3. Sam Foster

    I work at least a couple mornings of my week in a local cafe. I try to keep an eye on when they are getting busy, tip well and generally try not to be a leech. I get free wifi and a mains socket when I need it, they get a regular customer.

    I *think* this deal works out well both ways. Sure they make better margin on the people who pick up coffee and go, but a coffee shop needs to offer more than coffee to go the distance, especially against Starbucks etc.

    I’m a big believer in cafe culture, telecommuting and all the intersections that go towards providing a more vibrant local economy and community. I’m not sure Starbucks has much to offer me – except possibly a further option on a seat when my regulars are full.

  4. At Esquires in NZ they have free Wifi. However, it’s timed. You grab a voucher for 1hr access, when ordering. If you make a further purchase, you get another one.

    Actually, in the two Esquires I’ve been to, they’re more than happy to just give you another voucher regardless if you ask nicely :)

    Unused vouchers are also valid for up to 1 year. You also have the option of topping up online too with a credit card, if you wish.

    Personally, I think this would work as an alternative for those businesses that are worried they’re being taken for a ride.