Cafe’s Dilemma: Can You Offer Free Wi-Fi and Still Sell Lattes?

Do you ever feel the guilt-stare from a barista as you’re sitting in a cafe enjoying its free wireless? The cheapest patrons will nurse a coffee for three hours, while many will cave at the rate of roughly one beverage (or baked good) per hour.


Rather than guilting e-freeloaders (which puts strain on customer-barista relations), some cafes ban laptops or charge for internet access. But according to one study, that’s a bad business move.

A Dutch cafe has taken a sort of middle ground. Its baristas don’t pressure patrons to spend more, and its internet is still free. But the cafe frequently changes the name of its wireless network to things like:




Would this annoy you or perhaps make you laugh and buy another brownie?

What is proper etiquette as far as how much you should spend at a café while using its free internet?

Here’s another café-laptop dilemma: what do you do with your laptop when you have to use the restroom?

(Hat tip: Mike M.)

Katrina K

About what to do with your computer when you go pee:

Set your alarm.

There's software (I hesitate to name names) that will use the accelerometers included in recent laptops to detect when a laptop is being moved. These software alarms will loudly complain even if the nefarious bandit closes the lid on the laptop, and it won't stop until you tell it to, either with a remote (like the ones included with Apple laptops) or with a password.

Seems like a perfect solution to me!


I, as a customer, wouldn't go to a coffee shop that requires me to register or subscribe (ala Starbucks), or punch in a code from a receipt or LED display. Especially if there's a cafe a block away without any wifi-connecting hassles.

What cafe owners can do is set up a router with software that squeezes the bandwidth of an individual user after a certain amount of time connected or bits downloaded. Each individual machine is uniquely identified by a MAC address that can't be changed (unless you're fairly computer savvy), so it'd be easy to encourage people to leave after a certain amount of time.

Of course, people willing to buy something every hour might feel miffed.


I am writing this from a Starbucks in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
First, I'm employed, have internet access in my house, the local university, my workplace, etc.
Internet access at mexican Starbucks is free, as is with the majority of the coffe shops that deserve to be visisted here. You can sit here for hours, without being forced to buy anything. Obiously, if the place is getting crowded, in consideration to the other costumers, not the coffee shop, you would leave.

I want to stress something: A cup of joe at Starbucks here amounts about the half of the minimum salary of a day or work. For this price, I expect that they offer me an extra value. WiFi access is one of this extra vaue, others being security to stay with a laptop, free parking. All this Starbucks provides for free. I don't know what is like in the US, but here you can even ask the staff to secure your laptop with a kensington lock in case you come alone and have to leave your computer for a moment.

Besides that, WiFi access is provided by Telmex, the biggest communications provider here. If you don't want to use the Starbucks password, with the monthly fee for home internet access you are granted access in public hotspots along the country, and every Starbucks here is one of this hotspots, others being other coffee shops/restaurants like "Vip's", "Sanborns" and other places alike, as well as airports, etc.

Attending to a coffee shop and using the free WiFi is not a matter of getting access for free. It is a matter of going to a place that is intended to be used this way.

So, dou you have to buy something? Of course. You are expected to buy whatever you want, whenever you want. At least here, it would be a terrible insult to ask a patron to buy more coffee, a cake or something else in the same way the dutch coffee did. And it also would be very bad an mean manners to enter to the coffee shop and not to buy something, or not giving a tip unless you are really, really unsatisfied with the service.



At Murky Coffee in Arlington, VA, I noticed that all the coffee-drinking laptop users were facing AWAY from the barista. I didn't figure out why until I read these posts.


The bandwidth of the internet connection is generally shared and limited. This means that the marginal cost of adding another laptop on the wifi network is a shared cost on all the other laptop users in the form of a bandwidth speed decrease.

If you are like me there are only a handful of cafes where you spend serious time with your laptop. You eat and drink at this place on a regular basis. The more time you spend there the higher the likely hood of getting larger ticket items. On the other hand perhaps you are purchasing meals elsewhere and bringing them to your favorite cafe. That sort of cheating can much more quickly cause the cafe to become unprofitable.


Does anyone have an opinion on the physical setup of most Starbucks? I have a theory that nearly all of the tables are round to discourage people from getting too comfortable, and thus not staying as long as they otherwise might. Thoughts?


@ #65 -

Now it seems clear to me that etiquette can be traded; my worry is that what we're trading on one half of the equation isn't as static as the other (chocolate on one hand of the equation; proper behaviour on the other). If there's no way that economic theory can account for proper behaviour, then isn't the case that what we're really doing with children is pure socialization? How does one actually quantify proper behaviour and ground it in economics?


I'd certainly not be annoyed by changing passwords with funny names. i think it's endearing. My favorite Chicago place gives you an individual login with every purchase that's good for 2hs - I think that's reasonable.
Generally I don't feel bad at all for spending 3hs on one (expensive) large capuccino. The cafes where I do that tend to be places I go to regularly and with 1-2 coffe drinks a day at 15-20 days a month I think I'm worth it.


Here in the Philippines, some coffee shops now offer completely free WiFi, no minimum purchase necessary. Speaking as one of those "work from anywhere" people, I go to my favorite local coffee shop and stay there for 4-5 hours at a time. But I order plenty, because I like them.

I, however, DESPISE the other coffee shops who charge for WiFi *per hour*: they log you out at the end of one hour, and you have to order something again (with a minimum price this time). I tried that once, stuffed myself with bad sandwiches, and never went back.

I agree with the commenter before me, Sean - you have to like the place. When you become a real fan, using their WiFi doesn't feel like freeloading - it's support.


Don't assume wifi'ers are low income customers. Those places are set up so that the highest contribution margin comes from drinks. They make as much (or maybe more) from someone who only buys a soda than from someone who buys a sandwich and a soda. I saw a study on McDonalds that showed they were losing 2 cents on burgers to get people in so they could make 1.45 on Soda and French Fries. If you buy two coffees during the day you've contributed more profit than most, and what if one more person comes there to meet with you every now and then, then it is totally worth it to them. Anyone who tries to recover the cost of WiFi has a poor business manager. McDonalds is the exception, it will be interesting to see what they do as they continue to try and move into the coffee market.

Doug Nelson

Have a password printed on each receipt.
Each password is good for one hour only of wifi.
Each password can only be used by one person.

This could be circumvented by people digging through the trash for passwords, but I'd pay to see that.

You could also ask for computer name (or have it permanently on record with a frequent buyers' club card), so each password is only good for one specific computer.


You would have to be insane to find that annoying and not incredibly funny, even if you don't buy another.

Instead of charging or making it free to anyone who has bought one thing, why don't they give you time based on how much you've bought? An hour for every three dollars you've spent. Then you can't sit on it all day unless you keep spending, but it's still "customers get it free." And if you don't want to buy stuff, then maybe they can charge, at a rate lower than when you pay by buying stuff; say, a buck fifty per hour.

As for my own etiquette, if the place is getting busy, I won't stay longer than it would take me to consume the goods I bought. But if it's not, then I'm not hurting anyone by staying all day. That's actually how I approach loitering at non-Wifi places when talking to people.


Don't you guys realise it is not the cost of the internet connection but while you are sitting in a chair and taking up a table, you are putting off other trade that the shop can sell to.

Yes, if the coffee shop is empty then I suppose it is fair game but as soon as it starts to fill up, you sitting at a table is costing them money by lost trade.

Sean O'Dwyer

The WiFi is almost beside the point. I wouldn't feel comfortable taking up a seat all day, say, reading a book, without throwing a little money in the pot.

My local cafe makes unbelievably good cappuccinos. It's a small business, competing against a Dunkin' Donuts across the street and several other stores close by.

Cafe owners offer WiFi to draw customers so there's an understanding you'll buy something to return the favor.
I show my support by buying a second something if I'm there for more than 2 hours. Call it self-interest; it's a nice place to work and, if it fails, I'll be out a nice place to work.


@76 The chocolate bar isn't as static as you might think either. It will vary from others of the same brand in colour, texture, flavour and number of peanuts / amount of nougat / whatever's in it. The child might enjoy it more or less than expected.

No trade is based on 100% of relevant information. When your employer pays you for 8 hours work he doesn't know exactly how much effort he's getting for your wages.

As for defining proper behaviour in economic theory, you don't need to. It is something in this case that the child and parent both understand the definition of and the child can provide to the parent. Sure, there might be slight variations from place to place but you can learn and adapt to those just as you can learn and adapt to the different sizes of a gallon (see wikipedia) in different countries.


How to provide free wifi if the users are homeless or unemployed?

I can afford a coffee or two, but to pay just to login for an 30-60 min cup is almost like a loitering law.
McD charges for cups of ice and extra hot sauce, to deter the "vagrants" from loitering.

So if I spent frivolously at the same coffee bar in town, while employed, but never had to sit and use the free wifi... now I have to pay a premium when I do need to use it?

This means networking and artistic scene has a $2/hr surcharge, but when a cafe is a dead dog, no fee can resurrect its reputation?


As other posters have said, ordering 1 coffee and sitting for hours is accepted in Europe. My wife and I just got back from Greece and Turkey, and the zero-pressure cafes were a very nice break from the fast-paced get in get out American ones.

That being said, during college I'd go to the local coffee shop, get my quad-mocha for $2.50, and work for hours.

Also, I feel you can tell when a coffee shop wants you there... they have LOTS of tables.


I think that the WiFi should go by an honor system. If you only need it for five minutes, I think that's an exception and you shouldn't really have to be "required" to buy a coffee. But if you plan on sitting down and using the WiFi for 30+ minutes, I think you should buy something from there, maybe get a refill or two if you use it for brief periods.

Here's a thought: Post a sign saying to use the honor system, for example, if your usage adds up to fifteen minutes or more, buy a coffee. Or maybe cap the usage and when you buy five coffees, you get unlimited usage for that day. Of course, prepaid usage cards available at the the desk for purchase.


This is the problem with giving anything to anyone which is for the most part free (you know, like bailout money to auto giants or financial institutions, giving money to farmers not to grow stuff, sending payments to welfare recipients without conditions).

Once you set an expectation, the expectation is set. Then before you know it, it's a benefit and soon after becomes a entitlement.


Seems to me that it all evens out in the end---sometimes I buy coffee to go and don't sit in the cafe at all, other times I buy a cup and sit for three hours.

I think cafes just need to define themselves as the kind of cafe they are---the kind people bring their laptops to work in (should offer wifi), or the kind people use for chatting/dates, or takeout places. If they choose option #1, don't be mad at people for lingering.