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Giving in to the gadgets

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This post is by SmartBlog on Restaurants and Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

Starbucks brewed up news last week with the launch of a service offering a slew of free online content and downloadable music for customers using the company’s free Wi-Fi in 6,800 stores. Starbucks, which only began offering free wireless earlier this year, partnered with Yahoo! to develop the new digital network and has signed additional content partners including music provider iTunes, publishing houses HarperCollins and Penguin, national newspapers The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and a variety of online news and entertainment services.

Starbucks expects the new service to give it a significant competitive edge and enhance revenue when customers opt to pay for content they’ll take with them and read later, and the network virtually guarantees more return visits by laptop-toting and iPad-carrying coffee fans. Still, despite serving up much of the content in snack-sized bites just right for reading while downing a cup of joe and a scone, it’s likely that a sizable number of customers will see the new service as one more reason to linger longer at the coffee shops’ tables.

The trend of buying a single espresso drink and planting oneself and one’s laptop at a coffee shop table to work or browse the hours away is the main reason some smaller coffee shops have headed in the other direction. Rather than adding wireless content, some shops decided this year to ban the use of laptops and other wireless devices, at least during the busiest times of the day. In August, The Wall Street Journal reported on shops including two Naidre’s locations in Brooklyn. Owners offer free Wi-Fi and encourage guests to power up at some times of the day, but recently outlawed the practice during specific midday hours after realizing that Web-browsing customers were taking up tables that could be used to serve more lucrative lunchtime traffic.

The Journal’s report also included evidence that some eateries may have gone too far in their efforts to ban the practice, including one incident in which a potential customer not only left the shop after being told she couldn’t use her laptop, but also shared her negative experience online. “Good luck staying open when you’re turning half your clientele out on a Friday night,” she wrote on Yelp.

Such bans may be having some other unintended consequences, as New York Times writer Nick Bilton pointed out in his blog piece about the fact that his favorite coffee shop has decided that Kindle e-readers have more in common with laptop computers than paperback books. “Even though I don’t agree with the shop’s logic and its distinctions between pixels and paper, I can appreciate a place hoping to offer an escape from computers and the Web,” Bilton wrote, before going on to point out that the growing popularity of digital books may soon force coffee shops to give in and allow tablets and e-readers.

Do you offer free Wi-Fi in your eatery? Is allowing laptops good or bad for business?