Laptop Hobos Becoming Homeless

Coffee ShopAh, the pungent aroma of fresh roasted coffee, clouds of steam hissing and shooting out of the top of espresso machines, wiry and tattooed baristas jockeying for position — shouting order names … and what traditional coffee shop backdrop would not be complete without the throng of “laptop hobos” hoarding outlets, sucking up wifi and bandwidth, and remorselessly spreading papers across whole tables?

Coffee shop owners are fed up … and rightfully so! It seems like it’s the same characters that perch themselves in their favorite coffeehouse chair for several hours on an almost daily basis. Independently-owned shops as well as large chains like Starbucks have had to take drastic measures like covering up their outlets or limiting table time in order to keep the majority of customers happy and maintain revenue flow. The industry has sweetly given this stand-up group of folks the name “laptop hobos”, and although they might seem homeless, their marked trait, the laptop, would indicate otherwise. It seems like an odd phenomenon: someone who travels to a coffee shop to ‘work’ on the computer might be feeling a bit lonely or want to feel social, yet it is antisocial to get territorial over your public personal space and to sit for entire work shifts inside a place of business without making a single purchase. And how does one possibly concentrate with so much ambient noise and distracting sights whirring through your field of vision? But I digress …

To combat the problem, several Starbucks in major cities have covered up their outlets and an employee at a Starbucks in Washington, D.C. confided in me recently that they have an “out of order” sign hung up on their perfectly-functioning bathrooms’ doors to not only discourage actual homeless people looking for a place to wash, but also to further discourage table lurkers who like to hang out for a long time. Panera bread, dealing with the same issue, had resorted to limiting wifi use to thirty minutes between their peak hours of 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. Some small shops have made the decision to sever wifi access on weekends or altogether, and as a result, cafe owners are seeing increased sales. According to their experiences, taking positive action to deter lengthy table use by any means might deter a few people, but has substantially increased sales. I know that if I went to a coffee shop that was crowded and overrun by freelancers, youtubers, or facebookers and couldn’t find a spot to sit comfortable, I would be less likely to return. Most people — practical, level headed customers — should be able to see why the policies have changed, from a business perspective. Or, if you are an entrepreneur with a little extra start up capital, maybe there’s a market for a specialty coffee shop specifically designed for “workers” in mind? What is the solution and what are some other common problems coffee shops face with customers?

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