The war between coffee shop squatters and coffee shop owners has been brewing (if you will) for two decades. The battle lines are pretty clear: the squatters want to sit with their laptops; the owners want traffic moving through their coffee shops.
The latest dispatches from this brutal war of attrition is being reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. In that city, the Coffee Bar has implemented time-metered seats for coffee-drinking patrons and banned anyone armed with a laptop from sitting there—all of which is music to
Evil Empire's Starbucks's ears. Here's what one of those tables looks like:
Obviously, people who love slurping down free WiFi and have the endurance to spend hours upon hours in a coffee shop are going to be most offended by this movement. Conversely, people who go to coffee shops just to briefly scan the paper, eat lunch, or chit chat with friends are going to love this innovation.
But you know who else loves this escalation? Starbucks. The coffee conglomerate has been quietly been making moves to take advantage of miffed WiFi moochers. Late last month, the coffee giant announced that its stores in Silicon Valley will begin a wireless charging technology. "Customers are using mobile devices more and more. Keeping your devices powered is a problem," a spokesperson told ABC News. Clever. Charging your phone is convenient but it takes time; Starbucks wants that time spent in its coffee shops.
And that news came right before Starbucks announced it was dumping AT&T and upgrading its WiFi connections by partnering with Google. "When your local Starbucks WiFi network goes Google, you’ll be able to surf the web at speeds up to 10x faster than before. If you’re in a Google Fiber city, we’re hoping to get you a connection that’s up to 100x faster," Google wrote on its blog. Faster WiFi in addition to a phone charge kinda makes it seem like Starbucks wants you to make yourself at home. What reason would you have to leave?
What has coffee locavores scared is that all these upgrades, along with the mounting aggression against WiFi users from mom and pop shops, will eventually put smaller shops without WiFi out of business. In other words, mom-and-pop stores could win the WiFi battle but lose the coffee war.
Wanting to investigate this question further, The Atlantic Wire took to the streets of SoHo in New York City to find out how much WiFi factors into people's selection of coffee shops. Our first stop was Gasoline Alley, where there weren't many lingerers; it seemed like everyone was just grabbing and going, caught up in their own little New York dramas.
Our next stop was the almost-too-precious La Colombe—there were lingerers there, and one man even reading a paper, but no laptops in sight. The line was out the door, just like the line at Gasoline Alley, perhaps proving that New York City may be a post-WiFi society where overcrowding can't happen because coffee shops are already way too small.
Then we moved into the heart of darkness: Starbucks. Brian Marder, who freelances for an ad agency, said the nature of his job makes WiFi his top priority when choosing a coffee shop. But then came this admission: "Actually Starbucks' WiFi isn't that great." He did not appear to be drinking any coffee at the time of our chat, lingering in precisely the way San Francisco's Coffee Bar loathes. Another Starbucks patron said he probably wouldn't go to a shop that didn't have WiFi.
Of course, many patrons cared only about their caffeine fix, suggesting that the availability of tables or how long they could be used for did not matter in the least. "I only stop at coffee shops on the way to something, so WiFi doesn't affect my decision at all," a Starbucks patron told us. We'll drink a latte to that.