Is Starbucks Pulling the Plug on Laptops?

When Starbucks announced last year that they’d be offering free wi-fi internet access to all customers as of July 1, coffee lovers across the country applauded the move. The coffee shop mega-giant was, after all, one of the few remaining chains that required its patrons to pony up a fee in order to connect to the Internet while enjoying a fresh cuppa. At the time, company CEO painted a rosy picture of patrons enjoying not only their free connection and gourmet coffee treats, but a custom-created content channel strictly for Starbucks users. Now, just a year later, there are hints that at least some Starbucks stores are losing their enthusiasm for parts of the laptop culture.

According to the latest Internet coffee buzz, reported first by a tipster on a Starbucks gossip blog, Starbucks has started covering electrical outlets to discourage laptop users from plugging in without topping up. The tipster reported that at least three locations in Manhattan were covering their A/C plugs so that laptop users have to rely on their battery power and discourage the practice of ordering a single cup of coffee to tie up a table for hours on end. From there, a CNET tech blogger picked up the story and tried to get an answer from Starbucks corp offices with no result. When CBS News picked up the story and then Reuters called Starbucks offices to ask about the policy, though, Starbucks apparently figured that they had to come up with a response.

The Reuters headline on August 4 reads “Busy NYC Starbucks Block Sockets to Free Seats” and quotes a Starbucks spokesman with the official word on free wi-fi at Starbucks. It’s up to the individual store. The spokesman for the country’s largest coffee shop chain told Reuters reporters that customers are asking for the change because “they purchase a latte and a pastry and there’s nowhere to sit and eat it.” He went on to note that as far as he knows, only a few cafes in NYC have made the decision to plug A/C outlets.


The whole situation does raise interesting questions — and not for the first time. With many coffee shops offering free wi-fi access to customers, freelancers, jobseekers, students and others often settle in for extended stays at coffee shop tables. While offering free wi-fi can encourage repeated sales of coffee and foods throughout the day, the other side of the equation can be inconvenience to the other customers. Other coffee shop chains and individual coffee shops have dealt with the issue in varying ways. Many Barnes & Noble stores, for example, limit laptop use during busy hours or request that laptop users take a single table rather than tying up four to six seats so that they can spread out. Some indie coffee shops have a minimum food policy, requiring, for example, that patrons make a $2.50 purchase every two hours or so, to try to balance things out.

Coffee shop owners and patrons offer these etiquette tips for those taking advantage of free wi-fi at Starbucks and other coffee shops.

Leave larger tables for groups.

Make a purchase every 1.5 to 2 hours, and tip your server.

Avoid the need to plug in by bringing an extra charged battery.

If you must plug in, seat yourself near an outlet to avoid creating a tripping hazard.

Be willing to share your table during busy hours.

Use headphones to avoid intruding on other coffee shop patrons.