ThirdPlace WorkSpace Thursdays: Wi-fi and Learning from Starbucks

Diverging from cafe reviews this week, I'd like to touch on what independent retail can learn from corporate retail and how design plays a role in how people behave.

Last week in the Atlantic Wire, Alexander Abad-Santos reported on some coffee shops banning the use of laptops, while starbucks is taking advantage and trying to attract people by partnering with Google to vastly speed up their wi-fi.  On one level the visceral response too prohibit "moochers" by mom-and-pop coffee shops is understandable... they've got limited space and somebody working on a laptop might not be spending as much per space-time occupied as somebody else.  At the same time, well... Starbucks is no dummy.  They're not luring people with wi-fi because its going to be a money loser for them.  As urban retail expert Bob Gibbs has frequently pointed out, malls learned a lot from traditional urban retail streets, which can, in turn, learn an awful lot from the way malls are designed and managed.  I would say that same might be true for coffee shops.

Different cafes of different sizes in different neighborhoods cater to different clientele.  Some churn out cups-o-joe for the working stiff on their way to the office; some focus on their baked goods and sandwiches; others fancy themselves as neighborhood lounges.  Much of that depends on location (being in the heart of an office district is much more likely to make you a cup-churner than a hangout-for example). Design of the space inside also plays a role in shaping the activity and business a cafe will make.  Couches or chairs with very small table tops tend to not make for good long-term laptop squatting.  Multi-person tables, especially when there's no single-seat option, run the risk of being monopolized by a rude laptop user (I'm a firm believer that, other than in the least busy cafes, a laptop user shouldn't act as though its their right to spread out over space that others could be using).  I suspect it's the busiest cafes that struggle with the presence of laptops the most (because unless you're full, the use of space can't really negatively affect you).  If that's a majority of business in a fully shop, you might even build it into the cost of a cup of coffee.

So for the sake of us patrons and resistance to the Evil Empire Starbucks, I'd implore cafe owners struggling with the use of their space step back, think about it a bit further, and take a less draconian approach to managing the use of their space than eliminating wi-fi or posting "laptop users need not enter" signs.  After all, even in roadway design, relying on social and design cues can actually make for a safer, welcoming, and efficient street than littering the whole place with rules.  Know your space, be subtle, and be welcoming.  As Abad-Santos puts it, you don't want to "win the wi-fi battle but lose the coffee war."

Third places in a city or town are those that are neither home, work, nor shopping… they are the informal places in between, the public living rooms where we gather or go to be alone in a crowd… and there’s good argument that a culture of solid third places (Parisian café culture is so good as to become cliché) is a driver and indicator of community vitality. They can also be great workspaces for those of us not wanting to work from home, not yet being ready to pay for “real” commercial space, looking to get out of the office, or have a more informal meeting.  There’s etiquette (called buying things and not being a slob with your belongings) to working in a café, but doing so can be good for you and the proprietor alike.  In this blog, I’ll take you on a reviewed tour of some of Philadelphia’s ThirdPlace WorkSpace (trademark pending) opportunities.  I hope you join me.