Starbucks Plugs Up Electricity For Some

Discussion
Sep 21, 2011
Tom Ryan

Starbucks last month admitted that it has started covering some electrical outlets at some busy Starbucks coffee shops in New York City to discourage laptop users from overextending their stay while freeing up seats for others.

"Customers are asking (for it). … They just purchased a latte and a pastry and there is nowhere to sit down in some of these really high-volume stores," a Starbucks spokesman Alan Hilowitz told Reuters.

He said the decision is made on a case-by-case basis by individual stores and he believes it is limited to some locations in New York City. Free Wi-Fi and offering free refills for card holders also extend stays.

"If this is what the store needs to do to support the business, then they’re allowed to make the decision to do that," Mr. Hilowitz said. "It really is all about the balance."

The socket blocks were first brought to light on the blog Starbucks Gossip, where some readers noted that outlets were being replaced with blank face plates. Not surprisingly, the internet was flooded with opinions on the merits of the move.

The actor who started the Starbucks Gossip entry said he relies on Starbucks to "refill both my belly and my smartphone’s battery" between auditions. He finds the new electricity rationing "disturbing" because it "would seem to run contrary to the company’s ‘Third Place’ philosophy." Starbucks has attributed much of its success to being looked upon by fans as the "Third Place" to hang-out after their home and work.

At ZDNet, blogger Zak Whittaker wrote that Starbucks has become "a wonderful alternative for students to the college library." And while he asserts that people shouldn’t stay for hours without making a purchase, "blocking off the power points seems to be a step in the wrong direction."

However, responding to the Starbucks Gossip entry under the headline, "Can’t please everyone," a purported eight-year Starbucks veteran said, "In certain extreme circumstances, where management have exhausted other avenues of resolution, stores have covered their outlets because people do abuse the ‘welcoming’ nature of Starbucks.’ "

Writing for The Stir, blogger Kim Conte thought the move was "completely fair," arguing, "Laptop loafers rudely hog all of Starbucks’ space, leaving little room for other customers to enjoy their coffee."

Reports on Starbuck’s move also noted that other cafes have been looking into limiting the times laptops can be used to free up seats, as well. Many Panera Bread locations, for instance, restrict the duration of free Wi-Fi to 30- or 60-minutes during peak hours.

Discussion Questions: What should Starbucks do about laptop loungers? What limits, if at all, should be placed on time spent in each location?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

25 Comments on "Starbucks Plugs Up Electricity For Some"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
9 years 7 months ago

Old timey signs saying ‘NO LOITERING – 20 MINUTE MAXIMUM – PLEASE ENJOY YOUR STAY’ come to mind (which Tim Horton’s still uses). Yeah, free power and Wi-Fi is going to create a seating shortage at your location no matter what you sell. Bottom line folks, Starbucks is still a for-profit business and power hogs who sit for 5 hours while purchasing one cup of coffee are not your ideal customers.

David Livingston
Guest
9 years 7 months ago
Obviously, people love to do this or it would not be a problem. I do it too. It’s a great bargain. You spend $1.60 on a cup of coffee, sit and relax for hours on the laptop, people watch, and it gets you out of the office. Starbucks has become a cheap teen and tween hangout for kids doing their homework or socializing. With many laptops now having 8 hour batteries, I don’t even bring my charger along anymore. Starbucks will be closed for the day before my battery runs out. Blocking outlets will be futile. At McDonald’s, I don’t even go inside, I just sit in car and use my laptop. McDonald’s business model is to have uncomfortable seats to discourage lounging. That seems to be working well for them. Actually I’ve never gone to Starbucks for coffee. I go to use my laptop. Coffee is an afterthought. As a courtesy, I will purchase their cheapest cup. People who want to go enjoy coffee should go to a restaurant that does not offer Wi-Fi.… Read more »
Joan Treistman
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Starbucks has to decide what its policy is. If stores can determine their own criteria then it should be transparent. It would seem that visitors on extended stays at Starbucks can still use the available outlets, while others cannot…so what has been achieved?

I think customers will understand a policy that states Starbucks wishes to be a comfortable environment for all its patrons. Hence they are asking for cooperation to limit stays to one hour per purchase (or whatever they decide). Each receipt has the time of purchase and this will make monitoring possible…if they have to monitor at all. I think their customers will be into self-regulation.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Starbucks has found itself in an interesting space. They want to be seen as the “third” place and created a warm inviting environment to accomplish that. Now they have found their clientele (note the lack of word customer) agrees with their positioning, but perhaps too well.

It appears the welcome mat Starbucks created is being abused by some, but am surprised that they didn’t see this coming. Laptops have replaced desktops for many people as the device of choice. Couple this with the increasing time people spend online for whatever reason and you have a squatter’s city in the making. This is one of the reasons we have advised several convenience retailers that free broadband connectivity and seats are not a good combination in an environment that is geared towards high turnover.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

My prediction is that this is a short-term mistake and the outlets will be uncovered shortly. Starbucks is too smart and customer savvy to do something as ridiculous as this. The better solution, which my local Starbucks executed, was to redesign the perimeter of the store for more laptop access, which left tables in the middle open to those who were electronically connected.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

As with most challenges involving human nature, it is once again the few that abuse a well-meaning gesture and spoil it for the rest. Starbucks is in the business of selling coffee and not renting remote office space. Running a quick calculation, the electricity cost of a single laptop running throughout a business day at one Starbucks location is just under $10/month. With 17,000 locations worldwide, that translates to more than $170,000 every month just to cover the electricity costs. Perhaps each latte bought could buy you 60 minutes of ‘AC time’ while Wi-Fi remains free?

Jesse Rooney
Guest
Jesse Rooney
9 years 7 months ago

This policy makes sense for a limited number of stores with very high volume, but would be inapplicable for most others, where lounging about is permitted and, to a degree, encouraged. To a degree, the stores serve different customer bases with the former appealing to people interested primarily in the coffee product and the later inviting those who want the lounge experience. I wouldn’t look for this to be rolled out across the whole chain, but I also expect that a few stores will continue to block off outlets.

Kevin Graff
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

This reminds me of retailers who put in restrictive refund policies to guard against the few customers who would abuse a more open policy. In the process, they punish the 99% of customers who wouldn’t. Yes, it even drives me a little crazy to go to my local Starbucks and see the same people there every day for hours doing ‘business'(not sure most of it is really business though). Loitering for $1.80 in sales and tying up the place.

The solution isn’t in penalizing the vast majority of good, profitable customers. It’s in identifying and moving along those money-losing ones. Shorten up the Wi-Fi time limits, or try the human approach of just talking to them.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
9 years 7 months ago

I don’t know that this will work in every location, as each one has its architectural quirks, but in Starbucks’ shoes, I would divide up the space — over here is the laptop space, with outlets and all the amenities of “third space.” Over here is the high-turn tables. No laptops allowed. If the laptop space is full, that’s too bad. Come again at a less busy time.

I’ve always thought that, particularly at some of these high volume locations, there is an opportunity in store design to provide premium seating to premium customers — whether the laptop crowd or the coffee crowd. There’s also something to be said for providing Wi-Fi to Starbucks cardholders only — and shutting it off after 30 minutes during high volume times. The Wi-Fi and the power are provided as a courtesy, as a way to sell more coffee. If it’s not working, Starbucks should definitely adjust.

Roy White
Guest
Roy White
9 years 7 months ago

This would appear to be the first wake up call for Starbucks (as well as its fanatically loyal patrons) that a store can be too comfy. Mega book stores went down the same path, and, admittedly after several years, the price was paid — the ultimate price by Borders. It’s past time for Starbucks to start considering table turn, especially since the footprint of many of their units is modest. This move may alarm and annoy some of their patrons, but will likely make others happier in that they can purchase “coffee-and” and find a place to sit. Starbucks will benefit from moves like this.

Charles Hutler
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

They should install a token device to hook up the laptop. You get free tokens for your purchase and possibly can just pay for additional ones if you need to stay longer.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
9 years 7 months ago

The mall food courts figured this out a long time ago. Replace the cushy easy chairs with hard seats that discourage lounging. May be a little draconian, but if it’s a problem in an individual store, this is the solution.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

On a recent visit to California, my 6 year old laptop with its short battery could only be used if plugged in. I needed to check emails so went to McDonald’s. The manager pointed me to a table where he said I could find a plug but left me to find it for myself — in a 10 ft high ceiling. NOW I get it.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 7 months ago

Starbucks should begin by asking: What business is Starbucks in? Does that business rely heavily on laptop loungers or more primarily on latte consumers? Answer that question, Starbucks, and set your policy accordingly.

Dan Frechtling
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Walk into a Starbucks in mid-town Manhattan and watch the game of musical chairs.

There are too many butts chasing too few seats, which, by the way, are wood, not cushy.

Covering outlets as a last resort will discourage the loiterers, but the point is moot when there are too many patrons, regardless of devices. For Starbucks, this is a good problem to have.

For patrons, it can be easy to solve.

Next time you visit a busy New York Starbucks, take note of who’s next door. It’s those patrons with their devices plugged into the power outlets of hotel lobbies, bread shops, and even bars, sucking AT&T Wi-Fi through a long straw (see for yourself at 56th and 7th).

Rick Moss
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

During a post-Irene power outage, I scurried, laptop in tow, to my local Starbucks to complete about an hour’s worth of critical work (publishing stories for this site, as it happens). At 8:30 am, there wasn’t a chance of getting a seat. Every table was being hogged by regulars who had their papers and devices spread out as if it were their own office space.

I hightailed it across town to McD’s where there were tables aplenty and free, easy-access Wi-Fi. The rub: not an electrical outlet in sight (obviously by design). Fortunately, I had just enough battery life left to do my work.

Bottom line for me, seems reasonable to use electrical power as the limiter. Let people hang out on their own batteries, but move on when in need of a recharge. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Jeremy Schafer
Guest
Jeremy Schafer
9 years 7 months ago

They can simply print an internet pass code on the receipts that are good for a set amount of time. Want more internet? Buy something else and “reload” your internet minutes.

Larry Negrich
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

They need to determine whether they are in the business of selling coffee in a pleasant environment or if they are in the business of renting out extended stay, laptop cubicles and respond accordingly.

Jeb Watts
Guest
Jeb Watts
9 years 7 months ago

45 minutes of free surfing is not bad for a cup of coffee. You want to surf longer, belly up for another cup of Joe.

Kai Clarke
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Starbucks was built upon coffee, community and chat. Minimizing any of these 3 key components is compromising the very success which built their company. Instead of limiting the power, perhaps another alternative is limiting the Internet time. Never bite the hand that feeds you…Starbucks needs to remember this….

Matthew Keylock
Guest
Matthew Keylock
9 years 7 months ago

My thoughts would echo most of the responses. This approach, the premium seating idea and the Wi-Fi limit seems acceptable solutions where they are needed … Starbucks is a business! Maybe they should consider advertising revenues from pop-up ads that get more frequent the longer you are online!?!

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

This is a real problem without an immediate solution. It can be approached from a technology standpoint, a cultural habit point of view, or just plain common courtesies. I don’t have the answer, yet … I’ll ask my globalization and new media class.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

As a former CMO of a coffee franchise this is 1) not new and 2) a real problem. There is no easy answer, which is why they have had to resort to this solution. I welcome it and don’t feel it will hurt their brand a bit.

Carlos Arambula
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Unfortunately, the current economic situation has changed drastically from when Starbucks began offering free Wi-Fi.

Starbucks is now the “home office” to countless of freelancers/contractors/job seekers. I suspect it’s also the only available online access to some of the same. The situation is such that I’ve heard folks avoid particular locations because the “regulars” (or squatters as I’ve heard them described) are territorial and even hostile when someone takes their self-assigned seat.

While I sympathize with folks attempting to gain an advantage of the free service, I also understand the need to limit Wi-Fi use by a business depending on a constant flow of traffic.

It is possible for Starbucks to be fair and limit time for laptop loungers. I don’t believe it will yield a negative result and it might increase store traffic. In Southern California, other coffee chains limit time, so Starbucks’ time limits would not be unusual.

Kathy Oneto
Guest
Kathy Oneto
9 years 7 months ago

The reality is that human beings sometimes need help making the right decision. While one might hope that people would know not to hog the space in Starbucks and stay past their welcome, the writers of the book “Nudge” have shown that we sometimes need cues to help make the right choices. I myself love Starbucks, because they create a “third place” for us when we need it. I love that I can lounge and get work done via their free Wi-Fi while on the road. But, I still need to be respectful of their other clients who want to take advantage of this benefit, as well. Plugging the plugs perhaps is the easiest, fastest way for Starbucks to help people make the right choice so all patrons can be happy.

Starbucks does a lot of things right to build brand loyalty. Over time, they’ve done this for me turning me into a brand believer.

wpDiscuz

Take Our Instant Poll

Does it appear to be a good move for Starbucks to block up outlets at some of its busy Manhattan locations?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...