retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Los Angeles Times reports that while “coffee shops were the retail pioneers of Wi-Fi, flipping the switch to lure customers ... now some owners are pulling the plug. They're finding that Wi-Fi freeloaders who camp out all day nursing a single cup of coffee are a drain on the bottom line. Others want to preserve a friendly vibe and keep their establishments from turning into ‘Matrix’-like zombie shacks where people type and don't talk.

“That shift could gather steam now that free Wi-Fi is less of a perk after coffee giant Starbucks stopped charging for it last month.”
KC's View:
You have to find differential advantages wherever you can...and if that means making yourself a “real” coffee shop that focuses on the beverages as opposed to the internet connectivity, that’s certainly one way to do it. However, I suppose that the chain coffee shops might look upon it as a victory if they think that they’ve forced the smaller, independent shops into offering less as a point of differentiation. It all depends on your point of view...

Here’s the passage from the LAT story that stands out for me:

“Coffeehouses have a rich history as community meeting places that can be traced back centuries to the Ottoman empire. They first popped up in Europe in the 17th century, open only to men but to all social classes. Eighteenth-century London saw the rise of the Penny University, where people paid a penny to drink coffee and debate the latest news in local coffeehouses. Italian immigrant communities imported the experience to major cities in the United States. In San Francisco's North Beach district, for example, coffeehouses became the literary home away from home to the Beat Generation's Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Some cafes have retained their character as hangouts to share news and gossip with friends over a cup of coffee or a meal. Others have morphed into 21st-century cubicle farms where young techies set up shop, bang out code, meet with investors, run beta tests and even troubleshoot the Internet connection for cafe owners when it goes on the blink.”

Community does not mean now what it meant then. It used to be that community could be measured in blocks or, at most, miles. Today, community is global...and coffee houses have thrived by anchoring those communities, no matter how spread out they may be.

I understand the impulse that some cafe owners may be feeling to eliminate their Wi-Fi offerings. I’m not sure it will solve the “camping out” problem, since you don’t need a Wi-Fi hot spot these days to access the internet...just a good USB modem. And it seems to me that shutting down Wi-Fi ends up being a decision made because they think it is good for business, that ends up not being good for customers, and therefore isn’t really good for business.

We’ll see.