Aug. 20, 2013 at 11:55 AM ET
Independent coffee shops used to try to chip away at Starbucks' business by offering free Wi-Fi and ample outlets, inviting users to make it their lounge away from the home and office. But now some coffee shops are edging out the "squatters" who buy one cup of coffee and proceed to camp out for the day.
In the perpetually wired city of San Francisco, Four Barrel Coffee intentionally offers no Wi-Fi. Not only does it have no outlets on the walls for customers, it spray-painted stencils of electrical outlets "as a little joke," said Bryan Thomas, 32, who works in the coffee shop's office. There are even chip marks in the drywall from where customers have tried in vain to plug in their chargers into the fake outlets.
Wi-Fi squatting is a problem in some busy coffee shops across the country. Shannon Gough, 30, who lives in Washington, D.C., has stopped frequenting area coffee shops on weekends. "It is so crowded that there is never any available seats," she said.
"I have to hover, waiting to see who might be leaving soon, putting yourself close so you can swoop in," Michael Romanos, 34, said of his local coffee shop in Brooklyn.
The irony of independent coffee shops pushing back on the user base that likes to linger on their laptops isn't lost on Mike Walters, owner of 'sNice, which has three coffee shop locations in New York City. He says the attitude at some of these stores is: "We needed you when we were growing, we don't need you anymore."
Walters prefers a more balanced approach, with signs on the tables asking customers to only use one of the two communal tables at the front of the store during the lunch rush. Those are also the only tables with nearby outlets.
"If you have a bunch of two-tops (tables that seat two people), no one will sit with another stranger. Every computer is taking up two chairs," said Walters. "No one is going to sit, playing Battleship, laptop to laptop."
Even Starbucks, after launching free unlimited Wi-Fi at their locations nationwide in 2010, has since had to cover up the electrical outlets at some of its busiest stores, said company spokeswoman Alisha Damodaran.
"Our stores were designed to be community gathering places," she said. However, "we’ve heard from many of these customers that in some high volume stores, they want to be seated to enjoy the food and beverages they purchase in our stores but many times are unable to."
But the Perfect Cup in Chicago may have found the perfect solution, one that's neither passive aggressive nor oblivious to the bottom line. It has plenty of electric outlets and ample Wi-Fi, but to get on the network, you have to enter a password — found at the bottom of your receipt. The password lasts for three hours, ensuring that surfers maintain a steady drip of purchases.
While the measures may seem a bit gruff for coffee shops that have long promoted themselves as a friendly and counter-cultural alternative to the mainstream coffee joints, they're an economic necessity. Coffee shops rely on a high volume of low-price items. Stores can't afford to provide temporary real estate to people looking for a remote office for which they only pay $1.85 in daily rent.
Since 2002, Gorilla Coffee in Brooklyn's Park Slope has been a caffeinated oasis for the neighborhood's laptop-toting students and creative class, offering free Wi-Fi, outlets and high-octane roasts. But in 2011, as the economy picked up steam, the shop covered up its electrical outlets. Co-owner Darleen Scherer said they started to get customer complaints and negative Yelp reviews about laptop users with an empty cup in front of them occupying seats for hours, some taking up entire tables with sprawling books and papers.
"Our product isn't Wi-Fi," said Scherer. "The reason we have seating is for serving our product to people."