Starbucks' free Wi-Fi shows disturbing shift: Marketing to jobless

I'd always figured free Wi-Fi was one of those things guaranteed in the Constitution. I mean, isn't it self-evident? Air, water, Wi-Fi?

But it seems Starbucks just got the memo. Next week, the coffee behemoth will open its gates to the masses -- for free. No more need to pack a loyalty card or pony up for the Web while calming your java jitters at the ubiquitous coffee shops. Just drop in, log on and chill out.

Starbucks' Wi-Fi liberation was heralded as big and good news by those who herald such things. (Hint: Do a blog search for Starbucks and Wi-Fi.) Round of Wi-Fi for the house!

But me? I guess I'm a half-full cup-of-coffee guy. First, I've always found a coffeehouse full of worker bees clickity-clacking away over lattes as somewhat dispiriting. What of the cafes of Paris, where intellectuals sip coffee or wine deep into the night and discuss Descartes and Hemingway and whether Nicolas Sarkozy should please keep his shirt on?

Instead, our Wi-Fi filled coffee shops resemble a room full of angst-ridden teenagers. Sullen faces staring at screens, white ear buds firmly in place.

The move also puts Starbucks square in the middle of the long-running "third place" trend. Yeah, third place, as if it isn't enough to work at work and work at home. We need a third place where we can work, too. First it was the third shift -- work at work, come home and care for a family and then back to work, late night, in the home office. Now this.

Wonder how long it will be before the third shift is tackled at a third place?

But, it is what it is, as bosses like to say when they deliver the bad news. And if we're going to be working third shifts at third places, we might as well have a hot drink to wash it all down.

Amid all the huzzahs, though, was another underlying theme in Starbucks' move to do what everybody else was already doing. In business, competition drives change and Starbucks' move was in part an attempt to eliminate a competitive advantage that many mom-and-pop coffee shops (and OK, McDonald's, too) had over Starbucks. Your competition offers ; you better offer free Wi-Fi.

But there is a weird element to this competition. It seems part of what Starbucks is competing for is business from the unemployed.

Yep. Forget about those working a third shift in a third place. Starbucks apparently is hoping to attract those who would be willing to work any shift in nearly any place. Starbucks' same-store sales have been up impressively in the most recent two quarters, despite the shaky economy. Starbucks' bean counters (coffee beans, no doubt) attribute some of that boost to the fact that unemployed people are using stores as office space, the New York Times recently reported.

Not buying it? Consider that the coffee chain is also rolling out a suite of digital goodies with its free Wi-Fi program. Coffee fiends will be able to surf some paid websites, like the Wall Street Journal, for free. There will be free iTunes downloads and movie previews. Oh, and one more thing: A career site that will include job-searching and resume-building tools.

Sure, it will be a comfort and a help to those out of work. But I'm a cup-half-full guy, remember?

To me, Starbucks' strategy is a reminder of how long so many have been out of work. Nearly half those looking for work have been without a job for more than six months. The long-term unemployed have become so much a part of our world that they've achieved a sad new status: They've gone from being a group we worry about to being a group we market to.

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User comments

Jun 27, 2010
I agree with the author. Starbucks has never been a working place for me. Instead, it has become an undesirable place to be exactly because everyone is there with their screen up their nose. Same with cell phones it is used as a distraction device to ignore those around you. Opportunity for human interaction has been replaced by gadgets.

Jun 27, 2010
While I agree that it's downright creepy that Starbucks has become an odd sort of "place to be near people while working without interacting with them", I'd say that Americans cafes (it feels like stretching the word to apply it to anything like what we have here) are simply not the places to have intellectual conversation. I'm not even sure I believe that any franchised location can be an European-style cafe. Not to mention that cafes in Europe offer a far different menu than places like Starbucks. I'd say they're more akin to a bar in the states, but the idea of Americans going to a bar for intellectual conversation is...hard to envision shall we say.

Jun 29, 2010
Great Article. Loved the author started and ended it!

Jun 30, 2010
People ignore you even without the gadgets, but yea, I see what your saying, it's a distraction. But about the marketing to jobless, the economy is in the slump, who are they suppose to market to, the employed?

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