aNewDomain.net — Yes, Mike Elgan is a Starbucks squatter. A proud one. Here’s his essay in defense of his breed.
My people are a misunderstood and beleaguered minority. Yes, I’m a Starbucks squatter, a coffee-shop camper, a laptop hobo. I chronicle my incessant camping at Starbucks on Google+.
Sure, you think I’m taking tables and hogging electric outlets at the expense of others. You think Starbucks campers like me should just grab our lattes and hit the road like normal people.
But I implore you. Sit down. Plug in. And hear me out. I think that once you know my side of the story, you’ll change your opinion.
Some People Can’t Stand Squatting
The complaint against my kind generally goes like this: Starbucks and other coffee-shop campers just buy one cheap coffee and then take up a table for hours. We drive up the cost of coffee and inconvenience everybody else. We play loud videos and run our power cords across the floor, creating a safety hazard.
Drama over access to limited coffee-shop resources has become so common, there’s even a YouTube-based TV series called Coffee Shop Squatters.
Video credit: YouTube
One anonymous Starbucks employee posting on the Starbucks Gossip blog summed up the criticism nicely, saying:
If you are one of those people who uses Starbucks as their office, sits in a store for 8+ hours a day, putting all your files on a table, using a separate chair for your laptop case/suitcase enjoying unlimited free refills with your Starbucks card, asking for cups of water and refuse to move until you are good and ready, all for the $1.85 you pay as ‘rent,’ then perhaps your actions will answer your questions. Stores with cafes, like any restaurant, need to turn tables to increase revenue or even just to satisfy the dozens of customers that complain to corporate because they can’t get a seat with all the ‘free-wifi-using-laptop-junkies’ that greatly abuse the system.”
Some coffee places are even pulling the plug on Wi-Fi and covering outlets, as this one Denver establishment did.
But here’s my case for Starbucks camping.
The Case for Camping
According to scientific studies, coffee joints are great places to work.
Researchers who study the phenomenon find the ideal environment for creative work is halfway between quiet and noisy — a situation providing ambient noise.
Below image credit courtesy: Mike Elgan
There’s even a web site called Coffitivity. It provides the ambient noise of a coffee house, even if you’re stuck at home or in an office and can’t get to one.
Western civilization has a long history of privately-owned public spaces that have created and impacted profound creative and social movements. Think of the cafes in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, where writers sat for hours scribbling notes that eventually would become some of the 20th century’s greatest literary works.
Writers, artists, intellectuals and designers seeking out public spaces for creative thought are no longer expected to be makers and builders.
No, we’re now expected to be consumers. Buy that coffee product and that muffin product, get into your transportation product and drive to your cubicle. And keep slaving away for the industrial economy.
The public is trained and programmed and co-opted into accepting this mindset. The industrial-food industry in general, and the fast-food chains in particular, have trained us to eat and leave — and even bus our own tables on the way out.
Now they’ve got consumers pressuring consumers to behave like better consumers.
Coffee-shop camping is good for many — possibly most — coffee shop businesses. Starbucks included.
Fact is, coffee shops vary. Some have three tables, others have 30. Some are overcrowded. Customers are frustrated because there’s no place to sit. Others are chronically empty and look deserted.
When I’m coffee shop camping, I’ll typically spend about six hours at a table. During that time I’ll buy two or three beverages and probably get something to eat, too, averaging about $12 – $15 per session. I estimate that I spend about $3,000 per year on coffee shops.”
There is a minority of coffee shops — they are mostly in New York and San Francisco — where the businesses actually would lose money if I were a customer. At these places, tables are super scarce. And when customers see that there’s no place to sit, they just leave and go down the street.
But the majority of coffee places would be happy to have me as a camping customer and increase their revenue by $3,000 per year. .
When I lived in Silicon Valley in a small town called Los Gatos, I lived across the street from a Starbucks that was open until midnight. Every night the place was packed with Starbucks squatters — mostly students working on homework. Walking in the door at, say, 9 p.m., gave you a 50-50 chance of finding a place to sit.
At that hour, nearly all the customers are campers anyway.
I’m quite certain that if camping were banned at that store, the place would be deserted and it would make far less money. In fact, there would be no reason at all to even stay open until midnight. A huge percentage of its revenue comes from student squatters.
Campers bring revenue without costing much. For example, Wi-Fi, heating and the lease for the building costs the same regardless of how many people are using it. Electricity and other costs are negligible.
Even non-campers choose coffee shops in part for the atmosphere. Coffee shops are like nightclubs. Nobody wants to go to some place that’s empty and depressing. Campers make these places look busy and popular, and actually provide a subtle form of unintentional marketing for the place.
This is America, isn’t it?
The real reason to support Starbucks squatters and coffee-shop hobos like me?
America, that’s what.
We’re supposed to be the land of the free with a capitalist market economy. A real and obvious market demand exists for coffee shops that provide the service of a table, Wi-Fi and an outlet.
The companies that want to satisfy demand with supply will be rewarded with camping cash from coffee-shop squatters like me. Coffee shops should just monetize this any way they like. As customers we choose which option suits us best.
The real problem is that there’s a lack of clarity about the rules around camping: What are the rules of the business and what are the rules of etiquette?
Each coffee establishment needs to be clear about what it wants. Does it want to make the money from the campers? Or does it profit more from restricting campers to make more room for the come-and-go customers?
There are many ways some coffee shops discourage camping, including: limiting Wi-Fi, covering outlets, time-limiting table usage, posting signage and so on. Some of these methods work better at keeping coffee-shop campers out than others.
The best policies are probably the last two, as they don’t inconvenience non-camping customers.
Another alternative that I’ve seen cropping up lately: Some coffee shops have a bar or laptop area with lots of outlets — a kind of squatters camp inside the coffee shop.
But the most-important rules are points of etiquette.
You know it if you’re hogging a table for hours and other people are standing there waiting. You’re a dick if you notice this and do nothing. Every person — laptop hobo or no — needs to be courteous to other people. Squatters should only linger at a table that nobody else wants to use.
But here’s the real point most people miss: Coffee shops need to lure campers with better food and paid services to make more money.
When local coffee shops are struggling to compete with Starbucks, the way is to provide more and better spaces for campers, faster Wi-Fi, great food.
Sell booze, offer private conference rooms and charge for all this, if you want.
There’s nothing wrong with coffee-shop camping.
If a coffee shop provides tables, free Wi-Fi, outlets and no stated restrictions on camping, I’m going to take that as an invitation to linger.
And if it doesn’t want me there, fine. The coffee shop should just say so. And I’ll go some other place that wants my kind.
Either way, let’s drop the vagueness and resentment around Starbucks squatting. We’re here! We’re still here!
Get used to it.
Based everywhere, Mike Elgan is a veteran tech journalist and tech culture columnist. He writes most-visibly and frequently at Computerworld, Datamation, Cult of Mac, Houzz, PC World, InfoWorld, MacWorld, CIO Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle and The CMO Site. Now Mike is a senior commentator with us at aNewDomain.net. Follow Mike’s stream on Google+ and on Twitter @MikeElgan. The best way to reach him is via Google+. Email Mike here at aNewDomain at MikeE@aNewDomain.net.