Laptop-campers are killing small coffee shops

How to say the ugly truth to laptop-campers (I wrote this article at home)

Laptop-campers and the blurred self-image

Laptop-campers. The young and perky digital nomads, making millions from their thin-ass MacBooks. All that from their favourite coffee shops, fist-bumping the smiling barista that serves mochaccinos and muffins. The latest trap music hit is blasting in the background. What a nice picture. And full of bleep. Life is not a LinkedIn ad or an Instagram story. Especially for the small shop owners. But first thing first.

This is a story about people who sit the whole day in a small coffee shop and order one drink. We shall call them laptop-campers. There are much worse names for those people, but not this time.

This is not about people who order something every hour or so. These people are called customers. Because that’s what customers do in coffee shops. They buy something that coffee shop SELLS, not gives away for free. 

Laptop-campers in their natural habitat
Photo by daan evers on Unsplash

Why do the laptop-campers like hanging in coffee shops?

Have you noticed the absence of word work in this sentence? No, my friend, not every bearded guy with glasses is working from the coffee shop. A pretty decent number of them just like to sit there and look busy while reading/writing nonsense. A new age thing. But what makes people go to a coffee shop with a laptop?

  • Getting away from home. A home is a place full of distractions. Be it a 16-member family or just unwillingness to do house chores. And all that can distract you from doing your job. Or reading about what part of the body some reality star (over)filled with silicone.
  • Getting away from the office. Some people are just more productive out of the office, especially in the cosy atmosphere of their favourite shop. Beats that annoying colleague that smells of garlic and heats his tuna casserole in the kitchenette every time. 
  • You get to see people. Not my cup of tea, but some people obviously function great when unknown people pass near them the whole time.
  • Wi-Fi is free in coffee shops. Always a great thing because you can scroll endlessly.
  • Coffee shops usually have excellent air condition. This is a great perk if your workplace cut the air-conditioning costs so you can boss can have a nicer supercar. That 2017 one is becoming retro.

All great perks, we couldn’t agree more. To sum it up:

In cafes, you are safe from heat, cold and sharknados. You have Wi-Fi, a toilet, music, beverages, food and company. You are with people but still have the privacy of your table.

Excellent. But, what do you think, are you a good customer?

What do coffee shops think about laptop-campers?

And now, a sudden shock. The coffee shop is not your second home or safe haven when mean people on college/work call you names. It is a business, and it functions by selling stuff to people in exchange for money. That’s how they pay their rent, utilities, workers and make a living. A coffee shop owner (or barista) is not your best pal. Even if he is, he still needs the income. People who sit all day on laptops and order just one coffee are killing the bar. The laptop-camping is okay if the coffee shop is empty or half-empty. But as soon as one customer is denied service because your entitled ass thinks he can live in a coffee shop, the shop is losing money.

Mini Helsinki story – how laptop-campers can destroy your daily turnover

Just last weekend, my lovely wife and I visited Helsinki. And a man needs his coffee with some water, so we went to an Espresso House, near the Old Town. It was around noon, Saturday, and it was pretty crowded. While sipping our coffees (decent espresso and fabulous Pumpkin Spice Latte, kudos to the barista), I started counting people with laptops. 8 laptop-campers were there, occupying space for at least 15 people. By the time we finished our coffee (cca. 45 minutes), at least 20 people couldn’t get a coffee because there simply wasn’t enough space for them to sit inside. 

Sunday, same coffee shop, same time more or less. And this time, 10 laptop-campers were here. We stayed a couple of hours. Three espressos, two Pumpkin Spice Lattes and one great cinnamon bun. Our bill was decent, considering Helsinki is pricey. This time, I watched. None of the laptop-campers ordered anything that couple of hours. Their cups and glasses were as dry as … something very dry. You pick the metaphor. I just watched them plug laptops into sockets, speak on their headsets, go to the toilet and sip more of the (free) water. I sneak-peaked five of the screens. Redditt, 2 x Facebook, Twitch, and I believe, writing a fantasy book. Not a trace of a bread-earning process.

At least 50 people didn’t get served this time. That particular coffee shop is not too big and has a great location. Perfect for tourists to grab a coffee and a muffin and continue the exploration of the city. But the laptop-campers kinda moved in without pitching for the rent. Now, I don’t believe the large coffee chains worry too much about a few customers more or less daily. But for a small coffee shop owner, it would be devastating. 

Laptop-campers are killing the shops with a smile.
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

What can coffee shop owners do to fight this plague?

Most small coffee shop owners are too polite to warn the laptop-campers they are overstaying. Either that or just afraid of the negative reviews. So, here are some of the methods they use to politely shoo away the laptop-campers:

  • Limiting the table area so people can’t put their laptops on the table. It is a bad idea for two reasons: 1) if you can’t put a laptop on the table, it is a small table, and 2) laptop-campers are an innovative bunch. They will put the laptop on the lap, or just on the part of the table.
  • Removing the power sockets. But new laptop models have high battery life and can last for hours. Especially when you are not doing any work.
  • Getting more uncomfortable furniture. That will shoo away all the customers, not just laptop-campers.
  • Limiting the Wi-Fi, which is annoying and more or less undoable. Of course, the campers can always bring their own mobile plan. 
  • Charging a sitting fee. That only causes more mayhem and puts the waiter/barista in an uncomfortable situation.

As you see, small coffee shop owners have limited and lousy methods to shoo away the people taking up their precious space.

What can you do?

Sometimes I am too optimistic. Sometimes I think people don’t choose to be selfish pricks and camp the whole day in a coffee shop. Perhaps they just don’t know how the coffee shops make their living. But, things come to an end pretty fast these days. If you help kill your favourite small coffee shop, you will have to find another. And the new premise might not be as laptop-camper friendly as you think. Or it might have higher prices, worse coffee or grumpier barista.

So, let’s see what places offer free Wi-Fi and some comfort for you to sit down with a laptop:

  • Hotel lobbies
  • Public libraries
  • Malls
  • Gyms
  • Fast food chains
  • Big coffee chains
  • Co-working spaces
  • Your home – or someone else’s

Oh, look, every street in the town has at least one of these places. Incredible, right?

Final thoughts

Small coffee shops still have the soul. They are one of the last lighthouses before globalism wins, and your only choice is Starbucks or McCafe. Don’t let that happen. Don’t kill small coffee shops. 

There is no valid excuse for laptop-camping in the small coffee shops. That is plain selfish. 

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