The BBC reported this week on the use of wi-fi in cafés. While for many people there is an expectation that a café is likely to provide free wi-fi, there are many cafés which are deliberately not providing the service.
In ‘is the party over for free wi-fi in cafes?’, the BBC reporter visits a number of cafés to explore the different perspectives on the issue. Examples are given where wi-fi has been removed (and in some cases plugs have been covered over too). One café cited a high number of students in the area as a reason for not having wi-fi, over concerns the café would just become full of laptops and would no longer seem like a very open space.
The response to taking free wi-fi away has not always been positive. One café said they had to explain their reasoning to some customers, and that on the whole people understand. However, in another coffee shop in west London where the wi-fi was taken away there was a backlash online which led to the reinstatement of the service. Interviews with some members of the public revealed that one lady even stopped visiting the café when the wi-fi was taken away because she used it as a workspace in the morning before going to meetings, and also felt like the service wasn’t really free anyway when you are buying things while spending time there. The owner of this café explained his reasoning behind removing the wi-fi was that he didn’t want the café to just become a virtual office because it wasn’t financially viable.
Coffee analyst, Jeffrey Young highlights that for the big café chains, free wi-fi is expected as part of the customer experience, while with the smaller businesses a dichotomy has appeared: some have it as part of their business model, while others are not offering it citing reasons around managing the churn of customers, and avoiding having people sitting in their premises for hours while not purchasing very much.
The BBC report then provides an example of one independent chain which has embraced the use of cafés as a working space – a phenomenon which has been termed by some as the ‘coffice’. Timberyard, based in London identifies itself on its website as ‘independent creative workspaces fused with specialty tea and coffee’ a model which sees itself as providing workspaces as much as goods to consume. In some of its branches it offered a dedicated workspace, or rooms that can be hired for meetings, working etc. And they are not the only business to do so. Ziferblat, the café where you pay for the time you spend there rather than the goods you consume has fully integrated the idea of people using the café space with laptops and for work into its business model. At the Manchester branch (which recently won best independent café and an innovation award at the 2016 Café Life awards), they have rooms you can book to work in, a Freelance Friday event encouraging freelancers to get together, and a spending cap at 5 hours so that if you do spend the rest of the day there it won’t cost you anymore. This is a business which actively encourages people to come and use their space as they please, including to work if they wish, and to use the wi-fi if they want to. But then this is a business model where a high churn of customers would not necessarily be beneficial, they would rather their customers stay for a while than grab a quick drink and go. This is very different than for some of the smaller establishments that were referred to in the BBC report. For those cafés with very little table space, they really do want to allow plenty of customers the space to do what they had designed their café to do, to serve coffee, food etc. For many cafés, particularly those featured in the report from central London, space will be at a premium.
This issue isn’t new, and has been covered in the media several times before, and so it’s an issue that is likely to continue. I’ve heard various examples from café owners about why they do or don’t offer free wi-fi for their customers. Another reason I have heard from café owners is that they want their customers to interact with each other, and not to be hidden behind their screen. I have seen examples where a chalkboard outsides encouraged people to turn off their devices and participate in ‘a social network in real life’. For some people this isn’t what they want from a café so it may be a case that these cafés will end up shaping their customer base, as a result of how they manage their wi-fi access. For those that want to work (or just want use the wi-fi more generally) they will seek out the free wi-fi cafés, while others may be happy to disconnect for a while and enjoy their time in the café.