Doing Business in a Wi-Fi World

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I liked this article I found on the New York Times titled “What Starbucks Can Learn From the Movie Palace” that compares the use of Wi-Fi to keep customer’s lingering, with air conditioning of the days of old.

Wi-Fi service is quickly becoming the air-conditioning of the Internet age, enticing customers into restaurants and other public spaces in the same way that cold “advertising air” deliberately blasted out the open doors of air-conditioned theaters in the early 20th century to help sell tickets.

Today, hotspots are the new cold spots.

At the end of that first page, it talks about Panera Bread, a business that is going against the grain by offering its Wi-Fi service for free. My wife and I are regulars at our local Panera Bread, where I go study when my home internet is acting up, or just to get out and spend some time with her. We enjoy their food choices, decent prices, and friendly upscale ambience.

This is another point for Panera Bread, who seems to be doing business right.

Panera Bread, which has more than 900 Wi-Fi-equipped sandwich and bakery stores, has set itself apart from its contemporaries by upholding the old-fashionedspirit of those bygone theater owners who never stinted in theirefforts to make public space inviting.

The grand movie palacesdid not have to show the revenue-enhancing potential of an ornamentalgold cornice or plaster pilaster. So, too, at Panera Bread, where itsfireplaces do not have to demonstrate a monetary payback to justifytheir place in the stores.

Neither does Wi-Fi. Neil Yanofsky,Panera’s president, said that no cost accounting had been done on itsservice, which is free. The rationale relates to ambience: “We want ourcustomers to stay and linger.”

A Panera cafe does half of itsbusiness at lunchtime — there is little lingering then. But before andafter the lunch rush, the restaurant addresses what it refers tointernally as “the chill-out business,” which constitutes anot-insignificant 15 to 20 percent of its revenue.

Panera hasno interest in rushing these customers out — the longer they stay, thegreater the likelihood that resistance to the aroma of freshly bakedmuffins will crumble. Free, unmetered Wi-Fi is one way the restaurantsends an unambiguous signal: Stay as long as you like.

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