The Wall Street Journal recently profiled independently owned coffee shops that are starting to restrict laptop usage. Some have prohibited surfing the Web during peak dining periods. Others have prevented patrons from recharging their laptops on the store's dime by blocking off access to electrical sockets.
After a wicked streak of negative quarterly comps, an enterprising Starbucks wants consumers to know that loungers are more than welcome at its stores.
"We strive to create a welcoming environment for all of our customers," the company told CNET over the weekend. "We do not have any time limits for being in our stores, and continue to focus on making the Third Place experience for every Starbucks customer."
The whole "Third Place" concept -- where the chain is positioning itself as a third productivity hub beyond the home and office -- is a sound one. But it's also a setup for an obvious punch line.
You see, larger rival McDonald's
I'm particularly irritated by the hypocrisy of Starbucks' response. Most customers are not welcome to surf the Web for free at their local Starbucks outlet. Only T-Mobile subscribers and DSL customers of AT&T
Everyone else is on the clock. Customers who charge at least one monthly purchase to their Starbucks cash cards get two hours of complimentary connectivity a day. Others are prompted to pay $3.99 for as much as two hours of usage.
That's not a fair comparison, is it? A small cafe that fears its "free Wi-Fi" policy will cost it lucrative lunch and dinner traffic doesn't have the infrastructure to begin metering usage like Starbucks. The Journal also reports that this is mostly a phenomenon in the busy metropolitan hotbeds of New York City and San Francisco. It's unlikely to ever be a problem in much smaller markets.
One also has to imagine that if Starbucks is ever successful in positioning its foodstuffs as popular meal alternatives, then it, too, would fear Web-surfers who are hogging the coziest tables and cradling empty cups of the coffee they purchased hours ago.
So let's revisit the official policy, and rewrite it -- sans hypocrisy.
"We do not have any time limits for being in our stores, as long as you're willing to pay for extended online usage or are an AT&T DSL customer," Starbucks should state. "We also reserve the right to reverse our policy, if our food menu ever catches on."
How's that for decaffeinated PR?
How do you feel about Starbucks as a long-term investment?
Starbucks is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is a Rule Breakers stock pick. Apple and Starbucks are Stock Advisor selections. The Fool owns shares of Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz can walk to three different Starbucks locations from his home, but he's still not much of a coffee sipper. He owns no shares in any of the companies in this story and is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool's disclosure policy just switched to decaf.
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