Sunday, February 10, 2008

Free Wireless, That Works Please...

Starbucks wireless does not work!

I’ve been trying to establish connectivity at Starbucks cafe's for the past couple of years now, and I’ve found the service to be intermittent, moody and consistently unreliable. This always crosses me as very "Un-Starbucks-like" and I've never quite understood why they don't take this iniative seriously. Considering other "free wireless" opportunities out there, including Whole Foods , Panera Bread, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Zoka Coffee, Tully’s, and Top Pot Donuts, it's apparently being established, at least in part, that retail wireless connectivity is both a workable opportunity and viable business option that would make sense on more than a few fronts for Starbucks.

Currently Starbucks offers a wireless “Hot Spot” option via an outside carrier – T-Mobile. The current package options at Starbucks, via T-Mobile, include a $10 day pass or a $39.99 monthly pass. If you're a T-Mobile cellular subscriber, the cost is $19.99 / month.

That’s pretty steep considering the available opportunities out there are $Free.00, but it's not entirely prohibitive, especially if you're an avid user i.e. someone who does business online a lot outside of the office or who travels a lot.

But the concurrent and more pressing issue is that the T-Mobile's “Hot Spot” option is mostly unreliable. I’ve talked with many, many customers across the country and the feedback is similar: T-Mobile hot-spots are spotty at best. You can connect but will often lose connection.

Because of this, Starbucks wards off the prospect of housing a drone colony of single purchase, low spending, single coffee cup drinking internet zombies that occupy single tables for hours on end. This is the worst case scenario associated with offering free-wireless at Starbucks, and apparently a consideration for top management to keep the status quo. This status quo of expensive wireless connectivity that doesn't even work is very inconvenient if you’re someone like me who loves Starbucks coffee and The Starbucks Experience. I am increasingly put off by the impractical nature of not being able to consummate a portion of my working day in one of their café’s because I know I can’t have a reliable connection to the internet. I either have to stay at home, stay at the office or go to another “3rd place” option.

And I'm not the only one. It has been my experience that when Starbucks is less than full capacity, even a quarter capacity, other outlying retail operations that do have reliable free wireless options are humming along at near full capacity. And they don't have the drone colony fall out either. Sure, people stay there for hours at a time, but others stay for brief periods of time to check email or the daily news and then move on with their day. This is why, in part, Starbucks is ultimately missing the boat.

There are additional considerations for a reliable free wireless initiative at Starbucks:

1. It provides an additional entry point for new customers, a very relevant consideration in today’s increasingly competitive environment.

2. Right now, internet connectivity that is both expensive and does not work is a poor feature to their brand. The message currently being conveyed is that Starbucks is behind the times, slow and unwilling to adapt to the current environment of wireless technology. This insinuates that Starbucks isn’t really paying attention. This type of execution, or lack thereof, does not bode well for the brand that is Starbucks. With free wireless that works, I'd get a different message altogether, especially if they were to strike up some sort of savvy deal with a company and brand like Google.

3. Who’s inclined to be on computers surfing the internet using wireless devices? From afar I would assume its part of the overall demographic target of Starbucks – upwardly mobile, $5 coffee purchasing, sometimes buys a bag or two of Starbucks coffee roast kind of people.

4. Reliable free wireless increases the probability of generating a fresh repeat customer base i.e "an additional entry point".

5. Similar to point #2, free wireless connectivity at Starbucks offers a better brand proposition – and the opportunity to expose people to that proposition for longer periods of time.

6. A renewed increase in store over store sales and # of transactions.

Perhaps Starbucks fears café’ stagnation! This is a valid concern. They might fear an inability to turn tables sufficiently to generate and operate the business they envision. There are multiple ways to address this concern and the benefits and opportunities as mentioned above outweigh the risks. Starbucks can implement time signatures that kick people off after an hour or two. Starbucks can politely request, via digital sign through, that people limit their time to 60 or 120 minutes. There are various options available to increase flow through the cafe's.

Starbucks will figure it out. I just hope that whatever they do, they do something other than the same old thing - at least than I’ll know Starbucks is, once again, paying attention!

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