Some national coffee shops restrict laptops; Seattle resists

It’s Saturday afternoon and Starbucks Coffee in Queen Anne is packed: Nearly every table has a stack of books or a laptop on it.

People cram around a large table, barely glancing at each other as they hide themselves behind pages or screens.

Some of them are students doing their homework. Some are writers working on their manuscripts. Some are professionals working outside the office.

The store is often crowded with customers who stay for hours, sometimes buying only one drink and taking up table space, said Seattle Pacific sophomore John Clausen, who works at the Queen Anne Starbucks.

“But we like to make people feel welcome,” he said.

Coffee shops weren’t always this way, Tonya Wagner, the general manager of Victrola Coffee said. As recently as 10 years ago, her stores were predominantly a place where friends met for conversation and community.

The recent flood of laptop users in coffee shops has not gone unnoticed by store owners and management, and some of them have resisted.

Recently, certain Starbucks Coffee locations have begun to block their electrical outlets to discourage customers from lingering in their stores to work for hours at a time, often after only buying one drink, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The trend started in busy New York stores and has moved west to select locations of both chain and independent stores across the country.

The Galveston County News reported that a Houston coffee shop is taking similar measures, and users nationwide complained of emerging anti-laptop policies on a Gawker comment thread.

For some SPU students, this trend is alarming.

“That’s ridiculous,” freshman Colleen Coleman said. “I don’t know what I would do [if that were to happen in Seattle]. That would take away my ideal study location.”

Coleman said she spends as much as five hours at a time studying in coffee shops several times a week – and she’s not alone among SPU students.

Some Seattle stores have attempted to curb extended laptop use, and Victrola is among them.

But anti-laptop policies may not hold well in Seattle, a city with 10 times more coffee shops per 100,000 people than the national average, according to Zaarly, a consumer statistics company.

With so many coffee shops around, Wagner said she realized that if she drives away her laptop-toting customers at Victrola, another shop is available to them only blocks away.

Victrola has limited its Internet access to customers on two separate occasions in attempts to discourage laptop loitering in its three Seattle locations.

The store turned off its Wi-Fi on weekends for two years starting in 2004 and again for about a year in 2007.

Wagner said the decision to limit Internet access came from a desire to increase table turnover and to return the store to its origins.

“When our first store opened in 1999, laptops weren’t an issue,” she said. “It was a community space to begin with.”

Eventually, the coffee shop became a haven for students, professionals and people browsing the Internet.

Wagner said she was worried that people would no longer feel comfortable talking with friends in the store, but the social atmosphere of coffee shops may be shifting.

“Sometimes I’m annoyed with conversation [in coffee shops] if it’s too loud,” Coleman said.

Wagner does not want to discourage conversation in her shops, but she said that after restricting Wi-Fi access, she learned that banishing laptop users is not the answer.

“The better approach is to find a way to add more seating so there’s room for all types of customers,” she said.

Wagner said management decided to expand Victrola’s space, replace the few large tables with many smaller ones and add more outlets around the store to better accommodate laptop users.

“We realized the world has changed. It’s just a different cultural space now,” Wagner said. “And it’s more appealing for people to come into a lively coffee shop rather than an empty one. We like having students here; we think it adds to the ambiance.”

Still, Wagner said, they never announced the return of daily free Wi-Fi.

“It’s served its purpose to get students out of here on weekends so people have space to talk,” she said.

Coleman said she plans to stay at coffee shops.

“It’s not like I’m killing their business,” she said. “If I’m there for three hours, I’ll buy a drink or two, and I’ll usually get something to eat.”

In fact, many SPU students said they take care to support business when they camp out in coffee shops.

Freshman Landry Desmond said he always buys at least one drink while he studies, and he always sits at a small table to leave room for other customers.

Though Wagner once feared laptop users might come to think of coffee shops as places that should be quiet, Coleman said that is not the case.

“When you think of a coffee shop, you think first of conversation,” Coleman said. “I like to have people in my study environment.”

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Title: Some national coffee shops restrict laptops; Seattle resists | Author: Megan Hoye | Section: News | Published Date: 2011-10-26 | Internal ID: 7839