Laptop Loafers on Notice

August 25th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

One coffee chain is blocking electrical outlets to thwart freeloading customers.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Full disclosure: I am writing this blog item from a Starbucks.

And according to a Reuters report from last week, some busy Starbucks coffee shops in New York City are trying to free up additional seats for customers by blocking electrical outlets, a move meant to discourage lingering laptop users from taking up unnecessary space.

"Customers are asking (for it),” Starbucks spokesman Alan Hilowitz told Reuters. “They just purchased a latte and a pastry and there is nowhere to sit down in some of these really high-volume stores.”

You might recall that Starbucks made its AT&T Wi-Fi free-of-charge in every location last year, a move that invited customers to linger in the hopes they’d make repeat purchases but evidently compounded its loitering problem in particularly crowded stores.

So far, the corrective measure has been met with differing opinions. For ZDNet’s Zack Whittaker, the issue seems to revolve around which act is more irresponsible: sponging off a free Wi-Fi coffee shop without making a purchase, or blocking off the power points with no official explanation or press release. “Frankly, it just looks rude,” he writes.

Others, such as The Stir’s Kim Conte, a mom blogger and self-admitted Starbucks loiterer, wondered what took the chain so long to enact this informal policy: “If it takes covering up electrical outlets now and then to teach people to be more considerate, then so be it.” Fair point, as Conte is likely not sitting for hours on end without making a purchase.

As a former user of New York’s various Starbucks locations as alternative office spaces, I see both sides of the story. For those of us living in shoebox-sized spaces (but working out of our homes), a change in venue while working on an important project could be incredibly comforting. On the other hand, if your goal is to grab a quick drink or snack, navigating laptop-cluttered tables – some flanked with seats stacked with paperwork – can be downright annoying.

What do you think? Should Starbucks continue blocking power outlets to encourage people to work only as long as battery time will permit, or abandon the plan and hope that loiterers will try to be just a bit more responsible about clogging the free “office space”? Got another suggestion altogether? Share it here.