Laptop Hobos

Do you have experience with this? What is your wisdom?

Are today’s coffee shops meant to be the new office space for America’s disconnected workers? Many establishments, especially the big chains like Starbucks(SBUX -0.23%), offer free, unlimited Wi-Fi service for their patrons — presumably to let people linger and add to the ambiance. “We want to provide you with a great digital experience to go with your great cup of coffee,” the coffee chain’s website says.

But Starbucks and small, independent coffeehouses alike now have growing concerns about the large number of customers who camp out for hours at their tables. These “laptop hobos” are working, surfing the Web, using the shop’s outlets as an unlimited power supply for their wireless devices and occasionally getting downright territorial with other customers over space.

Some shops say they’ve had enough. They’re either laying down customer rules for Wi-Fi use or eliminating it at certain hours — or even altogether — while blocking their wall outlets.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://davidbrush.com mrdcbrush

    I work from home, or from a Panera, local coffee shop, etc. depending on what I need to accomplish, if I have meetings, etc. At least where I live, it is not a huge issue, though there are times when I have to be aware of my surroundings. If I have been there for a couple of hours, and the lunch rush is in and I am taking up space from others I usually pack it up.

    Some folks need more regulation than others, I would favor the owners of the shops engaging the few high offenders in conversation and figure out a system that works for everyone. Not everyone has a clear understanding of how they affect others. If someone is belligerent or accosts other customers, that is a different story, invoke the right to refuse service and show them the door.

  • JamesG3

    Sounds to me like they’ve found a market, just not the one they expected, and rather than embracing it, some are turning up their noses. There’s a way to approach this that would actually be a win/win if they’re willing to go there.

    Somewhere there’s an entrepreneur with a business plan (or there should be) for a chain of work-centered coffee shops for these folks. He/she is probably at a Starbucks right now using the outlet by the window…

  • Scott Eaton

    These business are the ones who created this culture and now they criticize it. Frankly they benefit from it too. If Starbucks did not have WiFi and I could not linger there doing work, I’d almost never have reason to visit there again. To me the price of their overpriced and not so great coffee is the price of admission for a few hours of “free” WiFi and a nice environment. I doubt I’m alone.

  • Phil Miller

    Why go to Starbucks for free wifi when you can just steal your neighbors?

    I kid, I kid…

  • Eric Weiss

    Every business that offers free Wi-Fi should use a solution like one of these:

    http://community.spiceworks.com/topic/301828-setup-time-limit-for-guest-wifi-users

    I think conscientious users will understand, and I suspect businesses are better off without freeloaders who would complain about time limits and likely don’t compensate for their “free” Wi-Fi time in terms of orders and tips anyway.

  • attytjj466

    No WIFI will mean significantly fewer customers. Time to get more creative than that, and after all is that not what the caffiene coffee shop culture is all about……creative and innovative solutions?

  • Pat68

    I go to Panera from time to time and their wifi notice that comes up when you’re logging in says that between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., online time is limited to half an hour. I’ve never experienced that though, so that may apply to weekdays when it’s probably busier during those hours versus the weekends when I’m in there. The few times that I’ve been in there, usually on a Sunday afternoon, the restaurant is pretty quiet and I’m usually in a section all to myself.

    If businesses are starting to find it problematic, that might spur on some new entrepreneurs to open up internet cafes for the express purpose of internet use versus coffeehouses and restaurants whose main purpose is food and drink.

  • Susan_G1

    Free WiFi is great for the customer. It is wonderful to linger over a sandwich in front of the fireplace at the local Panera. However, it’s far from a right. If shops are having difficulty with stragglers, limited guest time per sign-in or even low-cost vouchers for guests would be perfectly acceptable to me. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?

  • wolfeevolution

    Because your neighbors can’t provide you the peace of mind of being away from your rambunctious kids like Starbucks can…. :)

  • Amanda B.

    As an office-less person who works from my laptop, I’m definitely a coffee shop camper. But I spread out between multiple shops to try and avoid becoming a fixture in any one of them (I am fortunate to have a pretty big selection of cafes within easy driving distance). I also am sure to be nice to the staff and other customers, and to always tip. That just seems like common sense to me.

    And sure, I have my favorite spot–but like any public place, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s not “mine”. I haven’t bought it, they haven’t put my name on it, and so therefore I’ve got no right to be territorial. And as far as people sitting “too close” or being “too loud”–again, I’m the one who’s choosing to do work in public, so I have to either deal with the presence of other people or leave. It flummoxes me that this is a hard concept for anyone, and a manager would be fully justified in asking hostile campers to leave.

    Establishments are well within their rights to regulate internet, outlet, and table use. Panera does this in a way that manages to feel very polite and non-obtrusive; their internet login screen suggests taking a small table and lets you know that you can only access the internet for 30 minutes during peak hours. So when the bakery isn’t crowded, they don’t care how long you’re there, and when they need your table, they’ll send you on your way more quickly.

    I think there’s value to having cafes that discourage electronic campers, focusing instead on meetings and socialization. I think there’s also value to having cafes that are more dedicated to work (one of my favorite coffee shops literally has more power outlets than tables).

    But it seems to me that the proliferation of 3G/4G devices makes Wi-Fi a bit redundant if it’s always going to be tightly limited. I’d think it’s better for a shop to commit to being one or the other, rather than to offer “Free Wi-Fi! …Except you’ll annoy us if you use it for very long.” If I can’t park for more than half an hour, I won’t bother bringing my computer at all. And if the environment is naturally rushed and crowded, Wi-Fi is probably a bad idea.

  • http://proecclesia.net/ Garet Robinson

    There are seven Starbucks around me (and I can find them blindfolded) and a Panera (among other cafes.) Often I’ll go by during the day and find a couple of regular campers at different ones. However, most people come and go freely. The best strategy I’ve seen in handling this is a combination of somewhat uncomfortable chairs and no access to wall plugs. One of my friends, who works at a Starbucks near a major university campus said that the elimination of the wall plugs has helped the best.

    Now with the advent of tablets and ultrabooks that get 8 hours of battery life this second recommendation is less helpful.

    As a pastor, I have a great office to study in but I still prefer heading out to a local coffee shop or cafe to get stuff done from time to time. I try to be respectful of my time and other’s space. If it gets very busy and people are standing around waiting for tables, that’s usually a sign it’s time to head out.

  • JoeyS

    I thought borders should have redeveloped their bookstores around the issue of “space” – meeting rooms, coffee, access to books you may need at a reasonable cost. Obviously developing an e-reader would have helped too.

  • JamesG3

    That would be a good idea for Barnes & Noble before they go the way of Borders, though they just killed the Nook. NY State actually has at least one travel plaza with a coffee shop and available meeting and presentation space available. They found they were being used as central meeting points between major cities, and instead of booting the business people out, embraced them. Seems the way to go, to me.

    On a note unrelated to laptop hobos, but related to Jesus Creed and accommodating how spaces are being used in spite of their intended design, the NYS Thruway also allows a large group of Jewish men to have their evening prayers on top of the Sloatsburg Travel Plaza parking garage. (link: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-07-27-ny-thruway-prayers_n.htm)

  • Phil Miller

    I’ve always wondered why places don’t put up laptop charging stations that work like parking meters. Put in a quarter and get 30 minutes or whatever of juice, but then after that, cut it off. From a technical perspective, I think it would be pretty easy to do.


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