Wi-Fi Continues Its Extended Coffee Break

Several years after the first coffee shops and cafes started installing wireless networks. more merchants and customers are discovering why they're a good idea -- particularly the free ones -- helping to put customer butts in empty seats.
Helping Little Guys Compete

Wi-Fi has also become widespread even in small, local retail locations. Tina Harding, who owns Bart’s Homemade, an ice cream and coffee shop in Amherst, Massachussetts, says her store has been offering free Wi-Fi for a couple of years and it attracts customers, especially students in a college town like Amherst, and to her that’s all to the good.

“I’m happy to have them. I think any time [customers] think of Bart’s Homemade as a comfortable place is a good thing for me,” Harding said.

It's not just that Wi-Fi butts in empty seats. More important, it puts butts in seats at times when they'd ordinarily be empty. And, once customers are there, they tend to buy food and drink. That means incremental revenue gains for businesses.

For instance, Starbucks’ Davis says Wi-Fi gets people into the stores after the morning rush hour has ended at 9 a.m..

“With hotspot usage, the majority is after 9 a.m. People are staying connected for an hour. [As such] they are staying longer and having coffee and a pastry while they are there. We believe it has [a positive] impact on sales,” Davis said.

Starbucks' service provider, T-Mobile offers what it says is proof that Wi-Fi is working as a retail tool. T-Mobile reports that they are seeing an increase of time online from 43 minutes in 2004 to an average time of 64 minutes. In addition, in May, 2005, T-Mobile reported 17.5B terabytes of data moving across their wireless networks, up from a 2004 monthly average between seven and eight terabytes. True, not all of it is from Starbucks users, but it illustrates increased usage.

Panera’s Somers agrees.

“I will say this, probably the benefit [of offering Wi-Fi] is filling in the chill-out time between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner.” She says she doesn’t worry about people taking up seats during peak times because they have large restaurants, and such problems rarely occur. If they do, a manager may ask a Wi-Fi user to find a smaller table or to come back after lunch.

The Loose Goose Caf, a sandwich and coffee shop in Amherst, Massachussetts, offers free Wi-Fi, but signs on the tables ask people to give up tables during lunch unless they want to buy lunch, which the friendly sign encourages people to do.

As Wi-Fi grows in popularity, restaurants and coffee shops surely will continue to offer this service. The future is an unknown, of course, as city-wide Wi-Fi and other wireless broadband technologies emerge. But, for now, it's expected that, when you go to a coffee shop, you can bring your laptop, enjoy a cuppa and stay connected.

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