Mike Elgan: In Defense of Starbucks Squatters

Our Mike Elgan is proud to admit he’s a Starbucks Squatter, an unrepentant coffee shop camper. Here’s his defense of the practice, videos and pics inside.

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. 

A coffee place in San Francisco went so far as to put a 30-minute time limit on the use of tables.

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

mike-elgan-starbucks-squatters-campers-anewdomain

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.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Mike Elgan.

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.

 

About the author

Mike Elgan

23 Comments

  • as long as you’re buying food while you’re there, you’re fine. My opinion.
    Not just 1 cup of coffee. Make it worth their while as they have to turn tables for a profit.

    -RAP, II

  • While I like the premise behind coffee shop squatting when the need arises, making it a daily trek when you really do have another place to work is a bit silly (IMO). I’ve worked from home for several years, and while the idea of heading out to the local Starbucks and setting up shop there for a day has crossed my mind, I couldn’t imagine being the semi-permanent 9-5 resident of table 3.

    Let’s say you’re traveling and you have to choose between your hotel room and Starbucks. By all means, Starbucks might very well be the premium choice for doing business on the go.

    For me, if I really need an office away from home, I’ll go with a coworking space. To each their own.

    • …. and if there are no coworking spaces?

      I’m with you, and I feel somewhat uncomfortable at times being that 9-5 resident you speak of, but if I stay home for 8 – 10 hours a day writing and having next to zero human contact, even the background noise of a Starbucks, I’ll go insane.

      • That’s cool. I know how lonely writing from home can be. My Audible / iTunes Library have exploded since I started working from home. Add to that my frequency of Google+ hangouts, gotomeetings, and Skype calls, and it’s still just enough to keep me sane. Starbucks is a fine option, but for me, it’s just not a reasonable all day, every day one.

        • Right, as with my workspace here at home, I can’t stand to be in a coffee shop all the time. And thanks for the Audible reminder, I just grabbed a couple of new books there to get me through working at home on Black Friday weekend!

          (I still can’t believe my not-so-small city doesn’t have a great coworking site. Some of the ones I see online are so nice that I think I’d end up moving in if they were nearby!)

  • If you’re buying stuff throughout your time, and the store lets you stay, then by all means stay. However, your ‘this is America’ argument applies equally to you: if the store tells you to leave, or makes it known they don’t want ‘your kind’ there, don’t complain 🙂

  • I think the problem I have is that you are expecting a multi-billion dollar industry/corporation to bend to your creative juices. This isn’t the same cafe from Hemingways day. If you want what you are looking for, look for a more creative friendly atmosphere.

    My cup of coffee entitles me to the same table time just as much as yours. If your idea of the amount of time allowed for table use is applied to everyone there would never be a table.

    Also just because Sbux may not spend a lot of money to make their coffee, doesn’t mean you deserve to sit as long as you want. It would be the same if someone thought your product was worth less that what you marked it to be and decided to take extra to make up for it.

  • Wow, such a big article to justify doing something. Makes me think you really shouldn’t be doing it in the first place or that you are abusing the system.

  • My daughter goes to school in EauClaire Wisconsin and her favorite coffee shop there has the wireless code on the receipts. The code changes every 90 minutes so you need to buy something new to keep using the wifi. Clever solution.

  • As a full-time camper/squatter myself, working in destinations around the world, as long as I’m paying for coffee/sandwich/whatever, I should have the right to sit for as long as I please (which is generally 4-6 hours).

    That being said, my preferred office is the home one, and we generally stick to long-term apartment rentals, but Cris and myself still spend a healthy amount of time in cafes such as Starbucks…2-3 days a week, sometimes, more, and we always buy 2x coffees + a snack of some type while we are there.

    In our mind, we are MORE than paying for the space + use of the WiFi with our transactions.

    The whole consumer mentality makes me gag. That’s the reason I left the U.S. in 2008 and haven’t been back since, with no desire to return. I much prefer the “stay as long as you like” mentality in other countries.

    In three years in Bulgaria, for example, it’s ludicrous to even consider going out to a coffee shop or restaurant unless you plan on being there for 4-6 hours. Not once in the past 6 years of full-time travel have I ever been asked to leave a restaurant or cafe to make room for others. But in the U.S. I was asked on multiple occasions….at Olive Garden and other establishments after we had been in for 2+ hours.

    Much prefer the “stay as long as you like as long as you are paying” mentality 🙂

  • Today, I was writing at a Starbucks in Tempe, Arizona, when an older lady sat down in front of me (there were many open chairs) and asked me if I was going to use both tables ( I was using two), I looked up and said “yes.” She promptly replied: “well where am I going to put my coffee?” Rather than get into a confrontation with her and ask why she did’t choose one of the many other places to sit which had several tables, I just smiled and kept writing. She sat behind me and continued to complain for ten minutes….

    If she has just asked me if she could have one of the tables I was using, I would have gladly given it to her…

    It just seemed like she was looking for a fight, or perhaps a reason to complain about something that someone was doing… so… well, you know…

    BTW, I use my own WIFI… and rarely stay more than an hour.

  • I’m with Mike on this one. I was fascinated by the reference to the study on the ideal noise level for creativity. I work best in that “halfway between noisy and quiet” as well and I really don’t know why. Would like to read more on that study. Any chance you could add a link?

  • I don’t get the whole “camper”, “squatter”, other nonsense terms. I guess because I was one of the first in the world who ever did it. I want a place outside my home to work some days. This is the service I am after. I do not give a fuck about how anybody else wants to spin that, I’m after a service, you either offer it or you don’t. I happily pay $2 for a 10 cent drink and then get what I came for. You don’t want a regular who consistently gives you $1.90 several times a week, just put a sign on your door.

  • I’m a squatter from way back and the folks at my regular Starbucks don’t seem to mind…

    I bring my own power strip and invite people looking for power to plug in to share mine and I never use more than one chair. If someone looks like they need a table I offer to share mine. I never ask for ‘free’ refills (I consider it part of my space rental) and I always tip at least a buck so the store doesn’t seem mind. I go through 2 or 3 Venti’s on each visit so they make a buck or two off of me.

    A while back I did have one of the other ‘campers’ try and imply that I was a store plant to get other campers to pay for each of their drinks but the manager shut her down real quick!