The matter of laptop users ‘squatting’ in coffee shops has arisen again, this time with the publication of a report on the subject by two American professors.In the Journal of Service Research, they say that there is increasing incidence of customers unfairly taking over extra seats, counter space and table tops for their computers, and preventing others from getting into what are supposed to be public spaces.
There is now a suggestion that the problem may get worse… because other researchers have come up with findings which are said to prove that the ambient noise level in coffee shops is just perfect for those who want to sit and work by themselves.
This is of course a well-known hot potato in the café sector.The issue is that café owners want to entice customers to come in and stay in, and so they provide wi-fi facilities.The result is that computer users do come in, but that computer squatters tend to make the very minimum purchase, generally making one coffee last for over an hour.
What is new about the latest report is the suggestion that it is the café operator’s own fault for letting the situation arise, and that the café operator has the responsibility to correct it through better café design and signage.
The work was carried out by Merlyn Griffiths, of the University of North Carolina, and Mary Gilly, of the University of California, who spent thousands of hours in several hundred small cafes, eateries and coffee shops over a period of several months.
During this research, they confirmed that a significant amount of laptop-using customers deliberately position themselves conveniently for computer use, taking up so much space that they deprive the café of the revenue which would have been earned from other customers who cannot find a place to sit.The squatters ‘effectively barricade tables against others looking for a place to sit down,’ says the report.
They found many examples of people using an entire table meant for four people as ‘personal private office space’, and often doing so for hours on end.The professors found, these squatters believed they were entitled to use the space they were occupying for no better reason than the establishment advertised ‘free wi-fi’.
According to the professors, not all café owners handle the problem the same way.The big chains can afford a system which may automatically shut off a wi-fi connection after a certain amount of time, but this is not something a small business can easily do.As a result, some independent operators ask squatters to leave after an hour or so, and some give in and let customers do whatever they like.
The researchers found that café proprietors find the issue a trickier problem than might be imagined – in many cases, squatters may actually buy breakfast and lunch in a café, which makes them legitimate customers paying a reasonable amount of money over the counter.The problem for the café operators is that these two purchases typically cover a long span of table usage with nothing being bought in the middle – the awkward decision is of whether the squatters bring in sufficient money to be encouraged, or sufficiently little revenue to be reasonably evicted.
Virtually every café owner questioned by the researchers reported the same experience – watching customers enter their establishment, only to turn and leave when finding no seating available, due to squatters spreading their property around too widely.
In addition to this alienation of prospective customers, café owners reported a further administrative problem – frustration on the part of baristas and waiters who are often left sorting out arguments over tables and chairs.
The professors say that such selfish behaviour is now forcing more coffee shops to post signs limiting seating time in an attempt to overcome ‘rent-in-perpetuity’.However, the professors found that such tactics have met with limited success.
The unexpected comment from Griffiths and Gilly is that it may now take expensive new interior designs and floor plans to discourage people from spreading out their personal belongings.”Managers must decide what kind of place they want to offer customers,” say the writers.”Then they must design space in a way that accommodates different customers’ needs.”
They did not, however, appear to suggest what kinds of new design would overcome the problem.
A professor elsewhere in America has commented:”Facebook has taken over the traditional role of cafes.What Griffiths and Gilly have found shows our efforts to connect technologically anywhere and anytime, can interfere with the common courtesy we’ve traditionally extended to one another.”
And the problem may now get worse, with the publication of another study which proves that the coffee is shop is indeed the very best place for the lone worker or student to concentrate.
The Journal of Consumer Research has just published ‘Is Noise Always Bad?Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition’ by three university researchers:Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu and Amar Cheema.
Their paper puts forward the theory that a ‘moderate’ ambient noise level of around 70 decibels enhances performance on creative tasks – it is actually better than silence or very low ambient noise, in that it increases processing difficulty, sufficient to induce a higher construal level and thus promote abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity.Simply put, the logic appears to be that moderate noise does distract the worker, but sufficiently so that they start thinking ‘outside the box’, in an abstract way and with a broader focus, and thus are likely to produce more creative work.
A high level of noise, however, has the opposite effect and impairs creativity.
The key thing, say the researchers, is that the ambient level of coffee shops sits right in the ‘sweet spot’ of background noise which is perfect for creative work.
A reporter for a newspaper in Toronto has tested the theory, by taking noise readings in the city’s coffee shops.
At one café, he recorded a decibel level of 73, which the researchers think more or less perfect.On questioning the people working on laptops there, he immediately found one who said that the ambience had just inspired her to write a poem.By contrast, he recorded a level of 83Db at a Starbucks, and when questioning customers, he found that this was considered too high a level to allow for meetings or private work.
The consequence, it has now been suggested in the UK, is that this may be the key to evicting squatters.When they have gone too long without buying anything, set the music level to something sufficiently uncomfortable that they cannot concentrate!
This June, Costa has signed a deal with O2 to put in place a network of wi-fi hotspots before the Olympic Games.There is no word as to what work they have put in on optimum sound levels or length-of-stay.