Starbucks was envisioned as "the third place" beyond home and school, a third place to wind down or catch up with friends or colleagues as well as a host of beverages and an expanding menu of food items. During many parts of the day at many locations, many while away hours there unquestioned, often with laptop or iPad perched in front of them, quietly being productive and possibly profitable as they opt for the occasional refill or snack.

At other locations, though, conditions aren't quite as idyllic. Take, for example, the Starbucks in New York City's Union Square West. During midday hours, there can be a line that extends 10 people deep, and that's just for the bathroom. The line to order can be significantly longer, and finding a place to sit can be more difficult than removing the whipped cream from a Frappuccino into which it has melted.

And while I have been in many crowded Starbucks in my city as well as others, today was the first time I noticed a staffer surveying the seating area, telling people that they had to be a customer in order to sit. The presence of this Pumpkin Spice Latzi felt was surprising given the chain's traditionally relaxed Seattle vibe.

Companies that offer perks such as free Wi-Fi have employed different strategies to straddle the delicate line between being prudent and rude. One coffee shop has put signs on tables politely requesting that patrons purchase one item per hour. Some Panera Bread locations limit Wi-Fi to a half-hour block during peak hours. (However, patrons are cut off without any immediate advance warning.)

In an age where Wi-Fi can be a primary draw for those surfing Facebook instead of helping a business' books, clear guidelines are best. They should be posted on signs on the premises wall as well as on a login page if there is one. Users may be prompted to log in again after a certain amount of time, perhaps with a reminder to please be considerate of their fellow guests (or perhaps with tongue-in-cheek offers for hotel discounts).

But ultimately it's not about the bandwidth. Any determined squatters can bring their own broadband as nearly every smartphone today has the option to act as a wireless bridge between their laptop or tablet and cellular networks. Indeed, many iPads and other tablets include a cellular connection option to get around Wi-Fi provided by stores or restaurants. Returning to our Starbucks employee, a better option would have been for him to ask suspected squatters if they're ready for a refill or a snack rather than bellowing an unstated policy. This would provide an opportunity to keep business going as well as more gently remind people that the seating area is not a study hall.

Businesses that are trying to filter out freeloaders face the same challenges that paid music and movie sites do with pirates. There's some potential benefit to leniency in hopes that the squatter will ultimately convert to a paying user. But if the food, coffee or books aren't ultimately what the non-customer wants, they will be better served with an environment suited to their task. Companies that attract these consumers in some cities may look into promoting remote work options like LiquidSpace or Breather, perhaps even offering discounts to those who rack up loyalty card points.

Ultimately, businesses that provide seating and the kinds of products that enable slow consumption--books, beverages and food among them--need to balance hospitality with practicality. A cafe filled with those reading and not eating provides no space for real customers. The key is to remind them of the commercial nature of the business in a way that encourages their patronage and positive perception.

Published on: Nov 7, 2014