Coffeeshop Campers & the Honor System
One of the first decisions any coffeeshop owner has to make is what to do about the people who hang out all day studying, using the free wireless, and lounging on the couches, but don't actually spend any money. Sure, they spend $1.50 on a small coffee from time to time, but they nurse it for hours and take up room that might be used for other, paying customers.
If you're not a coffeeshop owner you might think that this is no big deal. After all, it's not like the person is using up costly products. They aren't eating free food or drinking free beverages. It doesn't cost any more to provide ten people with wireless than it does to provide one. And, they aren't using up a bunch of dishes that then have to be washed.
But, from the perspective of a coffeeshop owner, this is a huge problem. Here at CTTP, we need to bring in on average $100 PER HOUR simply to cover our costs. That means, if all of our customers were people who stayed for three hours and spent $1.50 for coffee, we would require 200 people in our shop every hour we were open, 7 days a week, just to stay in business.
Fortunately, not all of our patrons are quite so thrifty. We have lots of customers who buy more than a small coffee and many of them just drink (or eat) and run. We even have a large contingent of people who get their coffee and food to go. Nonetheless, at this juncture, our paying customers are not making up for the money our other customers don't spend, and this is a concern for us.
We have looked around a lot at how other coffeeshops deal with this problem and, for the most part, we aren't impressed. One strategy frequently employed is to disconnect the free wireless. Another strategy is to require a minimum purchase for every hour spent in the store. Some places even cover their electrical outlets, so people can't plug in their computers.
We can't imagine using any of these strategies at CTTP because they are fundamentally at odds with the spirit of our shop. When we opened our doors we wanted to be a warm, inviting, and inspirational space where people could come to get their work done, hang out with friends, and drink great coffee. Putting restrictions on what people can do while they are here would undermine that mission.
Beyond that, CTTP is well aware that the people who come to our shop represent a wide range of socioeconomic strata. Some are students living off of loans. Some are professionals. Some are homeless. Some are middle class American tourists visiting from out of town. Some are parents. And some are seniors living off of fixed incomes. As a result, there is a great diversity in what our patrons are reasonably able to pay for our services.
Since the last thing we want to do at CTTP is restrict who can and cannot come to our shop on the basis of income, we are determined not to introduce a mandatory minimum. However, that doesn't mean we can't expect our better-off customers to contribute their fair share of our revenues. For now, we are working off the honor system, trusting our patrons to do the right thing.
Which brings us to the question, what is a reasonable amount for us to expect a person to spend at our shop? After some thought, it seems to me that if every student or senior spent $3/hr, every working person spent $4/hr, and every professional spent $5/hr, we would be a lot closer to meeting our monthly costs without placing an undue burden on our customers.
What do you think? Do you have any ideas for addressing the freeloader problem that are in keeping with the spirit of CTTP? How much do you think is reasonable for a person in your situation to spend per hour spent at the shop?
Postscript: Right after I posted this blog entry, I stumbled across a post by one of our regulars, Kevin Burton, on the subject of free-wifi in coffeeshops. He makes some terrific points about how businesses should stop trying to discourage laptop users and start offering them other useful paid services to defray overhead costs. I think this is a great idea, but I would like to hear some suggestions about how to do this at CTTP while still remaining accessible to our lower income clients. What kinds of services could CTTP conceivably offer that would be of value to the laptop brigades?