Starbucks' Free Wi-Fi: Bring on the Loafers, Lazies, and Loiterers

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So, Starbucks plans to offer free wireless Internet at all of its U.S. stores starting July 1. It's a friendly gesture, certainly, one that could very well draw more customers to the coffee chain's thousands of outlets. Then again, the Wi-Fi perk may prove a little too successful, particularly if it attracts a particular breed of wireless hound.

You know the type. Offer free Wi-Fi and they will come--and never leave. Equipped with a laptop, cell phone, orthopedic backrest, and possibly even a Tupperware lunch, they'll hunker down in a leather chair or commandeer the best table--the one nearest the AC outlet, naturally. Often they seem to travel in packs; a free-Wi-Fi zone may face an infestation of laptop-toting loafers, a sea of glowing LCDs filling every corner of the coffee house. The neighborhood java hut often becomes their home office away from home.

Sure, some squatters may purchase a small latte, maybe even a bran muffin or a decaf refill after hours of loitering. But their small acts of patronage won't compensate for the ill will they generate, both in the minds of other (irate) customers who can't find an open table, and in the merchant's undernourished coffers.

Big chains like Starbucks and McDonalds, both of which offer free Wi-Fi, probably won't suffer greatly from the insensitive table-hoarding antics of loiterers. But small businesses can feel the pinch from lost sales. Potential customers, seeing a packed restaurant or coffee shop from the street, may keep walking and spend their money elsewhere. And then there's the merchant's higher utility bill, an unpleasant side effect of making AC outlets available to power-hungry laptops.

What's a small business owner to do? Many have done the opposite of Starbucks by curtailing free Internet access. Stung by last year's economic downturn, many New York-area coffee shops sent Wi-fi loiterers packing by covering up power outlets, banning laptop use during peak hours (e.g., lunchtime), and placing time limits on wireless access, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Come to think of it, maybe the big chains don't like loiterers either. A McDonald's restaurant near me has a posted sign that asks patrons to limit their Wi-Fi usage to 20 minutes. That's just enough time to check e-mail and maybe scarf down a McRib sandwich.

How should businesses deal with Wi-Fi squatters? Let them be--or give them the bum's rush? As an occasional laptop loiterer myself, I'd like to know.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter ) or at .

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