Catering to Your Niche: Screen Free Zones

A new phenomenon has begun cropping up around America. Coffee shops, once known as a haven for technology-focused work, have placed signs saying “screen free area”. But what does all this mean? Coffee shop owners, most prominently trending in New York and Los Angeles, are asking their clients to put down their tablets and phones, close their laptops and communicate. Rather than marketing free Wi-Fi and charging outlets, a market in which cafes pioneered plugging in, these cafes promote community, unplugging, and relaxing. I recently found myself in one of these cafes that had gone so far as to be a dark zone…no Wi-Fi, no data, and very limited cellular service. The goal of this shop? Coax its customers out of their technology and focus on the people around them and of course their cups of coffees and meals. If you are ready to market your space as Screen Free, there are a few things you should prepare for and new narratives to provide your clients to persuade them away from their beloved screens.

Potentially your first thought was a lot like mine when I entered that store, how in the world do they convince people to give up their technology, and how do they stay in business this way? What café owners are finding is that this niche of café marketing is actually pretty profitable. As a customer I’ve had one too many experiences of walking into a crowded café with loads of people clacking away on their laptops, settled in for the long haul. With no tables in sight and no sign of these customers wrapping up a conversation or meeting, I’ve left in search of another shop for a cup of coffee. Coffee shop owners have noticed that a lot of these customers, who tend to be students or freelancers, might only purchase one cup of coffee and settle in for hours. While new potential clients in pairs or groups have turned away in search of a new place for a quick catch up with their friends. Even if your customer with a laptop is making multiple purchases throughout the day, you are still losing turnover of new clients and creating a space of productive work, not relaxation and community. The table they occupy to work at may not create a comfortable setting for two customers to join that table for conversation. You might notice that some of your customers are even a bit more hushed if they sense the café atmosphere as one for work rather than conversation. If you’re ready to market to this community based zero tech type of clientele, it could be worth making your café Screen Free, shutting down or limiting the Wi-Fi, and shaping your café into a place of conversation.

You want to be successful and create an open space for conversation, but you also want your policies of screen free to be known. Rather than turning your baristas into screen police, create plenty of signage, offer quick explanations as to why you are going screen free that appeal to the community aspect, rather than the profitability. Have curious customers feel that your café offers a unique space, free of clattering laptops and business calls, and full of warm-hearted conversations, old and new friends meeting to talk, a place to play games, read a book, or reconnect. This will help in your overall marketing. Your narration in this type of café has to be community focused and honest in that endeavor. You are going against the norm of a Wi-Fi focused work zone to break into a new niche market. Some cafes have opted into phasing their loyal customers into this new policy, creating screen-free zone days before jumping into long-term policies. You can even start by creating policies that limit laptops and tablets but allow for smartphones to be utilized. If you are thinking of going Screen Free, advertise it rather than hide it, these boutique cafes are loud and proud in their anti-screen sentiments, and often play into their outlandishness. One cafe owner commented that at first their customers were confused and a bit upset, but when they realized the potential of a screen-free environment the shop became a place of a community rather than work.

The chance to connect without technology interference is ideal not only for those who grumble at the ever growing tech boom, but also for first dates, old friends reconnecting, and those who wish to sip their beverage without being bombarded by all the new technology. For this niche, you are appealing to customers who wish to enter a shop of lively connection, not faces staring at screens. Offering plenty of books and board games can help with your transition into this kind of shop and can give your clients who are used to relying on technology for entertainment new options. Depending on why you are going screen free can help shape your narrative. If your goal is to recreate a traditional coffee shop, rely more on a familiar narrative and appeal to your clients who are looking for coffee and nostalgia. If you notice that your clients are more in tune with the technology age, try shaping your narrative as a specialty shop that offers a chance for real connection. While millennials love their technology, they equally crave a chance for off-screen connection. By marketing your café as a trendy coffee shop with a twist, you will bring in curious customers, but also open your narrative to creative marketing. Offering date night specials, or community focused nights in which people can meet and interact with games or trivia can create a vibrant and lively space.

As a café owner catering to this niche, you should offer appealing alternatives in your café rather than relying on solely the uniqueness of your shop. This is an excellent chance to incorporate local artists and community members into your store to create the ultimate space for deeper connections. This way you can save a bundle on your Wi-Fi bill, and give customers the connection many of them crave.

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15 Comments

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  1. Offering board games is a great idea. It is a good substitute to WiFi. Imagine hanging out with friends having fun playing board games while having a nice cup of coffee and snacks, it couldn’t be any better!

  2. Oh I love the idea of coffee shops catering customers like this. I would love to get rid of my phone, be with a friend or a good book and spend some time in the real world with real people over a cup of coffee. It feels so great.

  3. The idea of coffee shops with screen free zones is great, but not all of us are addicted to their phones, tablets, etc…In fact, I prefer to not use my mobile phone while on a coffee break with friends or family. I guess it is a matter of choice, because most of us have Wi-Fi on their phones regardless of coffee shops and even if there is not free Wi-Fi we will still have it and use it if needed, so it doesn’t really matter if coffee shops are offering us their Wi-Fi. It’s a great concept, but it really can not stop a person of using its mobile phone, tablet.. In the end, there is no denying the fact that technology has an empact on every aspect of our lives and is here to stay indefinitelly.

  4. It’s a great concept indeed, but personally, I turn away from these shops. I can go screen free on my own if I need to, but losing the ability to receive important calls while in shop is a big no for me. I mean, imagine this scenario: your wife or girlfriend is trying to get hold of you, but they can’t. You’re sitting there with no reception and enjoying your coffee… only to come out with a hundred messages and a very irate significant other. That’s got to be a nightmare, especially if all you did was try to relax.

    Maybe instead of going all the way screen free or all the way connected, you can make it a hybrid. There will be a part of the shop that has no sockets and no reception. That should be enough to discourage the screen use.

  5. A screen free zone is a good idea. I’ve been to cafes where there were games like Jenga so that people could play it. Some places even offered books to read, it was like a mini library (without the lending option) and it was a different experience. Blocking cellular signals is a bit too much as I think one might not want to be in a situation where they can’t receive important phone calls. I don’t think we can afford to stay this disconnected especially in day time.

  6. A screen free cafe sounds awesome! I’m always looking for fun and exciting things to do with my fiance, and this sound great. The idea of being able to enjoy coffee along with games and books rather than sitting across from one another with nothing better to do than scroll endlessly through Facebook until we are mutually decided that we’re bored enough to go home. I do agree that cell service should still be available for important phone calls as the lack thereof could bring it’s own set of issues to an otherwise awesome environment.

  7. Screen free zones sound wonderful! In today’s world, everyone is constantly surrounded by technology, and conversations are hard to keep since everyone is preoccupied with their phones/tablets. A screen free zone would bring back the old feel to coffee shops, with all the buzz, music, people chatting…just a nice atmosphere overall to enjoy the coffee in.

  8. I haven’t ever been to a shop with the screen-free concept in place. I must say, it’s intriguing. I’m not sure how easily I could get used to that though. I’m not exactly dependent on my laptop and phone, but I have a very difficult time not having them on me. I do understand the idea of unplugging though, and it’s a good one. I think that I would be more likely to enjoy this if they had “productivity hours” or a time set aside for those like me who enjoy doing their work/studying in coffee shops. Then the rest of the day could be screen free.

  9. I think a screen free coffeeshop is a good idea, but I also think having cell phone sevice should still be available for important phone calls or emergencies.

    I also think that the games might not be good for bussiness, as that might cause customers to stay longer, but not necessarily mean they will buy another cup of coffee, or any other product you sell. And new customers might turn away upon seeing its crowded and no one getting up any time soon.

    If coffee shop owners want to offer games, maybe they could offer something like, if the customers want to play another game they need to buy something. Or they could charge something for another game the customer might want to play.

  10. I think a screen free coffee shop is a good idea, but I also think having cell phone service should still be available for important phone calls or emergencies.

    I also think that the games might not be good for business, as that might cause customers to stay longer, but not necessarily mean they will buy another cup of coffee, or any other product you sell. And new customers might turn away upon seeing its crowded and no one getting up any time soon.

    If coffee shop owners want to offer games, maybe they could offer something like, if the customers want to play another game they need to buy something. Or they could charge something for another game the customer might want to play.

  11. Ok, so these are some really great ideas – on both sides of the fence. While it’s important to be able to unplug, it’s even more important to be able to stay connected enough for emergencies and important communications.

    I don’t think that every coffee shop should consider going screen-free, but it might be in everyone’s best interest if they have an area that is dedicated to screens and one that’s dedicated to screen-free. If your coffee shop has the luxury of having a walled-off room, that would be great for screens. This will allow them the privacy they need without interrupting those who wish to be screen-free.

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