The Social Dynamics of Coffee Shops

Try as coffee shops might to encourage more profitable behavior, customers still control these third places.

The Doctor Will See You Now

Several years back, cafés and coffee shops began limiting Wi-Fi access for customers who wouldn't shell out for a refill or two. Some shops eliminated Wi-Fi entirely. With economic times getting tougher, are customers who are using their tables as surrogate offices, chess clubs or study halls about to suffer a similar fate?

According to a recent article examining café psychology and sociology, the answer is no.

Marketing professor Merlyn Griffiths co-authored a recently published paper on customer territorial behavior, particularly in coffee shops. They're a rich setting for such investigations, as anyone who's had to navigate a barricade of electronics and other personal items that can sprawl over an entire table and all of its seats (or has built one) can attest to. One of the findings that emerged from the study is that efforts to time customers and prevent lengthy sessions where only a single beverage is purchased remain the exception and not the rule.

This transformation of cafés has received little attention as a scholarly topic. Oh, everybody who spends time in coffee shops knows about it and experiences it, some on an everyday basis. But scholars haven't been paying much attention. Until now.

Novelists, tutors, chess enthusiasts and job interviewers can continue to use their inexpensive offices (the technical term is rental in perpetuity). Those frustrated at their inability to ever get a seat still have little choice but to remain patient. Drinking decaf may help a bit.

Coffee houses have a long tradition in American society as a place where people could meet and discuss ideas or just enjoy each other's company. They were the Facebook of an earlier generation. But in the 1990s, their role (and number) expanded greatly. While some patrons still do socialize at their local cafés, many do not and use them as a third place -- not quite home and not quite work, but with elements of both. This transformation has received little attention as a scholarly topic. Oh, everybody who spends time in coffee shops knows about it and experiences it, some on an everyday basis. But scholars haven't been paying much attention. Until now.

Using observation, photographic documentation, interviews and narrative inquiry, Griffiths' article explores the phenomenon from its many sides: the store owners who need to make a profit, the customers who want a quiet place to study, the ones who like to spread out and those who just plain want a seat for five minutes. They all have different needs and perceptions. In its own way, it's a lot like studying a foreign culture.

Make your purchase and the seat is yours -- if you can find one. What you do with it and how long you sit there is pretty much your own business.

This can lead to some spirited customer disagreements. Are you taking up one seat or four? How long can you hold a seat for another person? Employees are often asked to arbitrate these disputes. But there's usually little they can do but apologize and appeal to customers' better nature.

Chains have policies. Local shops show a little more variation on what is and isn't acceptable customer behavior. But by and large, it's the customers themselves who set the boundaries in this ongoing cultural experiment.

Though not in the article, PhysOrg tells of a disgruntled San Francisco customer who bought a coffee, found out that the shop didn't offer Wi-Fi and demanded a refund. They didn't get the refund but instead sold the coffee to another customer, stormed out and presumably never came back again.

It's nice to know that there's still a place where the customers get to set the rules. At least those who can find a seat do.

The study appears in the Journal of Service Research.

Merlyn A. Griffiths, PhD is an assistant professor of marketing at the Bryan School of Business and Economics, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her current research focuses on consumer social interaction, bonding behaviors and lifestyle consumption.

This article originally appeared on, an Atlantic partner site.

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