Will everything be a coffee shop?

A piece of speculation about the future of a range of businesses and sectors “In the Future Everything Will Be A Coffee Shop (via disassociated) makes some excellent points, and a few I disagree with.

In America in particular the cost of higher education and student loans is spiralling out of control – it can be a long time after they finish studying before graduates are paying off the cost of their training. But suggesting that the answer is to set up coffee shops where people can watch free lectures from large institutions doesn’t seem sustainable: it works for the first year or two, but then who is paying for the new research to be done, and the up-to-date lectures being created? You might be able to learn a language, or even how to run a business through a laptop, but if you need to do lab work of any sort, then a cafe will struggle to support the full spectrum of course content!

I’m mourning the loss of bookshops as a sound business model as much as anyone – there’s something comforting about the notion of having a bookshop in your own suburb. Having a bookshop that’s just a combination of a cafe and a distribution / pick-up point for Amazon, or an instant-publisher of ebooks is better than nothing. This model could be a positive contribution to local small business.

Ultimately, the main challenge with “everything is a coffee shop” will be finding a viable business model. Cafes struggle to compete among themselves: if every business in a shopping strip is a cafe, then supply will far exceed demand.

In terms of replacing office spaces, the business model of a coffee shop comes under stress when office workers settle in for the day. The expectation on the side of customers is that cafes should offer free wifi and free power. But at some point, this becomes a lose-lose for the cafe. To make money, the cafe needs to be able to keep turning over the tables to new patrons – there is  some period of time that someone who has bought a $3 (or $4) coffee can stay in the cafe before they’re costing too much money – but if a cafe asks someone to move along, they run the risk of alienating not just that customer, but the surrounding customers.

Should an office worker want to pay their way by purchasing some menu items and additional beverages, they’re going to be consuming a lot of calories in lieu of renting a traditional office space: – this isn’t going to be a great thing for worker health!

And that’s quite apart from the negative impact that remote workers have on the tone of a coffee shop – the coffee houses of centuries past would not have worked as idea hubs if everyone had their heads buried in their electronic devices! Some cafes are deliberately turning off the wifi for atmospheric or financial reasons.

I think there’s still a lot more thought to be done on workplaces of the future and it’s a little too reductive to think that a cafe (or even something on the scale of a cafe) will be the dominant form of workspace.

A dedicated co-working space seems more sustainable (e.g. vibe wirefishburnershomework) and then ducking out to a cafe for a change of scene, and a more reasonable timeframe.

Instead of relying on cafes to provide wifi and power for computer / tablet users, perhaps we’ll see wifi become a service that is provided by local council or state government as a general enhancement to the shared space of a community, rather than being isolated to specific private businesses.

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