When we launched Urban in 2009 it was still unusual to get wifi access for free in coffee shops, most charged or at least made it difficult to get access to. So we decided one of our differentiators would be to provide it for free with no restrictions, you could just turn up and use it. We did that because that’s what we wanted from a coffee shop and figured that we are not that unusual and others would want the same. I guess like many things we have built Urban from a customer’s mindset, after all, up until we opened we were just customers of coffee shops.
To date the free wifi has been a benefit to the business, we have built a customer base that likes this and uses it. Lots of coffee shops haven’t done this because they are worried people will buy one coffee and sit there for hours on the Internet. We do have some customers that do this but we also have lots that will buy multiple coffees because they realise the value of the space and want to do right by us. Do those that take advantage outweigh those that don’t? No idea – and would probably be difficult to work out without being ‘Big Brother’ for a day.
I think that wifi is a requirement of today’s coffee shops. All modern mobile phones have wifi capability so even if people are not visiting with a laptop they are using their mobile phones and want to be able to connect – think Twitter and Facebook updates.
A problem that we are now starting to experience which may cause us to reconsider our policy is individuals using our wifi to do things they wouldn’t want to do from work or home, like download illegal software or maybe even hacking. The problem with this is twofold. First of all, it is illegal and we could be held liable for our customers actions, and secondly, this activity tends to be bandwidth heavy which starves other users. Just the other day I drove by one of the emporiums at about 10pm at night and there was someone sat on the floor outside with a laptop, obviously using our free and open wifi. This in itself doesn’t matter unless they are doing illegal things and the problem is we just dont know.
The solution we are going to employ is to limit the type of activity we will allow on our Internet, so browsing the web, downloading email and video are all fine but other forms of download will be blocked. I am sure we will have some customer feedback on this but I think we have to protect the business, else we could end up with no Internet.
We also need to find a way of displaying our terms of Internet use to customers which we will probably do via our website to start off with.
Another challenge that coffee shop owners should think about is the technical aspects of having wifi in shop, i.e. what happens when it stops working? Do you have enough basic skills in shop to get it working again? Often just ringing the Internet provider is a waste of time.
We have also noted that once you provide wifi, customers take for granted that it will be available and will complain and go elsewhere when it’s not working. We have not ruled out having multiple connections to each of our emporiums to give us resilience such is our customer reliance on it.
To be fair we as a business are also reliant on our internet and increasingly becoming more reliant. It is likely in the next couple of years we will have a cloud based till system which is constantly connected to the Internet.
High street chains
What do the high street chains do for wifi?
– Starbucks: provides wifi sort of free – you have to buy a Starbucks card with a minimum of £5 on it, you then get 2hrs of wifi access.
– Caffe Nero: doesn’t provide free wifi but they do have wifi access via BT Openzone.
– Coffee Republic: again sort of provides free wifi – you get 10 mins free then you need to make a purchase.
– Costa Coffee: doesn’t provide free wifi, but some shops do have wifi access via BT Openzone.