The Situation Room – Some coffee chains may have the right idea – turn off the WiFi

Mac Olsen
I came across an interesting article in The Globe and Mail last week, about some coffee chains who don’t offer WiFi to customers at all, or restrict its use.

Brenda Bouw wrote the article, highlighting the Toronto-based HotBlack Coffee chain, which has turned it off. Co-owner Jimson Bienenstock says people ask for it, but he hasn’t wavered.

“In the short, it hurt us,” he says in the article. “It took us longer to become established, but once we reached critical mass, it has become a self-fufilling virtuous circle.”

He also says that people have taken it socially for granted that the coffee shop is a workplace.

“We don’t want to be an office. We wanted to do it old school and be a social hub.”

Bouw also interviewed Robin Delany of the Vancouver-based Delany’s Coffee House chain. Two of their outlets don’t offer WiFi.

“It does take away from the ambience and vibrancy of a cafe when you have a number of tables tied up with one person at a time working on their computer,” he says.

I sympathize with business owners who are caught between a rock and a hard place over the issue of WiFi availability.

On the one hand, WiFi service and device usage are so widespread in society, that you can’t have one without the other.

Many customers going into retailers, dining establishments and coffee houses expect WiFi to be available to them. It’s something that they can easily take for granted.

I’ve seen WiFi service offered at many retailers, dining establishments and coffee houses in the Peace Country, as well as in Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria.

I’ve certainly accessed that WiFi while out on errands and appreciate its availability.

But I also appreciate that some businesses, like restaurants, want to turn tables over as frequently as possible during busy periods like lunch and dinner. If a customer brings in their computer, smartphone or tablet and uses the WiFi for an extended period, how much profitability has that restaurant just lost?

Granted, this may not be a consideration for some businesses. But it has to be factored into their profitability nonetheless.

Yet, I also agree with Jimson Bienenstock that by not offering WiFi, his coffee chain can be a social hub. Bienenstock can set the ambience and social vibe that he wants.

Businesses offering WiFi to customers is only the latest in a string of technology-versus-human connection debates that we have struggled with.

In the 1990’s, telecommuting was all the rage. Businesses were touting the ability of employees to stay at home and do their work online. That was supposed to save the employee the time and expense of travelling to and from the office, as well as offer flexible work hours.

But the side effect was that it usually left the employee isolated and out of the loop with others. Human contact was sacrificed for these supposed benefits.

To offer WiFi or not? That is the question.

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