Markets in everything: cafes that charge by the minute

by on January 10, 2014 at 12:53 pm in Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

Ever felt you’ve overstayed your welcome in a cafe, by reading, working or surfing the web while hugging the latte you bought two hours ago? Pay-per-minute cafes could be the answer. Ziferblat, the first UK branch of a Russian chain, has just opened in London (388 Old Street), where “everything is free inside except the time you spend there”. The fee: 3p a minute.

Ziferblat means clock face in Russian and German (Zifferblatt). The idea is guests take an alarm clock from the cupboard on arrival and note the time, then keep it with them, before, quite literally, clocking out at the end.

The link is here, hat tip goes to Tim Harford and also Ian Leslie.

1 IVV January 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm

This strikes me as one of those “The Culture That Is” things.

My German wife is always searching for the European cafe experience–a place where you can rest and while away the day with friends and indulge in two-hour lunches (or coffee-and-cake afternoon rituals) while watching the passersby. However, there’s nothing in American culture that is similar, and little in the ways Americans do things that would suggest that it would be popular in the same way. In general, Americans lunch too quickly and view coffee as little more than a caffeine vector that is to be endured instead of savored. In fact, she complains that the only people who frequent American coffeehouses are students who bring their laptop and suckle the same cup of coffee over two hours while they do homework or play online and ignore the world around them. They certainly don’t feel like they overstay their welcome, even if they do.

As an American, I look at the habits of people in American cafes and say, well yes, of course we’ll be like that, the situation my wife describes with the long late lunches and everything sounds incredibly inefficient and usually downright boring. So perhaps this is a solution looking for a problem?

(Although incidentally, if your stay is measured on how much time you spend there, and all your consumables are free, then it’s tailor-made for Americans. We know how to consume lots fast and get out into the world again like nobody’s business. Ten minutes, 30p, and that’s two cups of coffee and a pastry.)

2 AndrewL January 10, 2014 at 1:20 pm

except that it will take 10min to pour you your cup of coffee and 20 min to get you your pastry. What? you think they have a good incentive for rushing your order?

3 IVV January 10, 2014 at 1:37 pm

They do if they want me to come back.

But they probably don’t.

4 karl January 10, 2014 at 4:10 pm

At $.06 per minute it’s a steal — what’s your gripe?

5 Rahul January 10, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Indeed. A coffee & a pastry for $1.80 especially in London (using @AndrewL’s 30 minute estimate even) sounds a steal.

I suppose they have a certain minimum charge?

6 Rahul January 10, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Aren’t Starbucks / Panera locations that fit the “place where you can rest and while away the day with friends” label? I always got that feeling. Even American diners / pubs seem quite relaxed about people lingering for long times.

OTOH I thought it more likely in German establishments to get a snide comment or nasty look for staying too long or ordering too little.

7 IVV January 10, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Ah, but who actually does that, and what about the environment makes it inviting? And honestly… no. Not because there’s anyone there to stop you, but because whiling away the day is just a terrible way to spend your time, for Americans. Except for the aforementioned students. They’ll park in their spot and fill up the cafe in no time.

Also, it’s incredibly easy to ignore snide remarks as the fault of the remarker, and so stick around and see where you end up feeling the need to pay first.

8 JWatts January 10, 2014 at 1:40 pm

“Ah, but who actually does that, and what about the environment makes it inviting?”

The Panera’s near me seem to fill up with such people between 1pm and 5pm. There’s always a clatch of people that come in after the lunch rush with their laptops or in a small group and while away the afternoon there.

9 Rahul January 10, 2014 at 2:35 pm

+1. I’ve seen this at the Panera / Starbucks near me too especially on weekends. The demographic was college kids, artsy types, housewives, freelancers, yuppies etc.

So not an EU phenomenon to me. Very urban American too IMO.

10 Steve-O January 10, 2014 at 3:38 pm

The Starbucks near me is always filled with people working, studying, socializing for long periods of time in comfy arm chairs or at tables with their laptops/tablets. They have a fair bit of walk in, order, walk out traffic too.

11 Adrian Ratnapala January 11, 2014 at 5:28 am

I’ve observed it in Seattle (just outside UW), and I know at least one person in the UK who chooses Starbucks for this purposes over other, cozier cafes. But I wouldn’t choose it. You want a quiet place with slow service, table service if possible.

12 Careless January 10, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Starbucks went from not being like that at all 20 years ago (check out the size of their locations from that time, if you can find one) to being intended for lounging around the late 90s.

13 At a free coffee table January 10, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Cool, except per minute it is the most expensive coffee shop in the world. Probably not the best business model.

14 Bski January 10, 2014 at 2:54 pm

It looks like the shops cost about 3 bucks an hour. That seems reasonable to me.

15 Brian Timoney January 10, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Indeed there are cultural specificities in cafe-going habits.

In Zurich I saw a mixed-gender group of office mates buy sandwiches and drinks at a bakery across the street then come over to Starbucks to enjoy their meal in comfort without so much as glancing at the register.

16 Ed January 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm

One issue with transferring the European cafe experience to the US is the large American homeless population. Public places will use all sorts of otherwise inefficient operational models to discourage homeless people from hanging out there. Its the main reason its so difficult to find a clean public restroom in the US (and you definitely see attitudes change when you get away from cities with large homeless populations).

Though actually a “charge by the minute” approach would work pretty well in this regard.

“Charge by the minute” probably most hurts the student/ freelancer who uses the cafe as an office where they can get work done. These people don’t interact with the other customers, buy little, and pretty much add nothing to the cafe. They are essentially white homeless people who shower.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the establishments where the owners/ managers are must up in arms about people spending lots of time there without buying much are also the emptiest.

17 John January 10, 2014 at 3:00 pm

“They are essentially white homeless people who shower.”

That would be very funny if it weren’t me.

18 Martin January 10, 2014 at 4:31 pm

I hope this concept spreads. It’s about 2.20 euro per hour: one tea or coffee at Starbucks will already set you back more. A coffee and a snack is two hours of seating time. Take something fancy and it’s the equivalent of three hours and it’s not often that I sit at such a place for more than three hours.

19 Hadur January 10, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Every cafe around my office is, during the work-day, filled with non-students who are on their laptop for hours on end. Most of these people are self-employed and are using the cafe as their office. They conduct business negotiations loudly over the phone, etc.

And my city is not known for being a startup hub in any industry. But I’m in a central business district and not particularly close to any universities.

20 RM January 10, 2014 at 3:22 pm

I always thought that American cafes used the quality of seats to influence how long people stay..

WRT the earlier discussion on Starbucks/Panera, my observations suggested that Panera aimed for the more conservative crowd. There is also a wider variation in the age distribution of Panera customers. Panera seems to be shouting you can be conservative/republican, boomer/middle aged and still be hip.

(All that said, I never considered Panera to be a cafe. People go there to eat.)

21 Careless January 10, 2014 at 3:40 pm
22 Tununak January 11, 2014 at 10:57 am

So THAT’s who goes to Hooters.

23 x January 10, 2014 at 4:43 pm

So the optimal strategy seems to be to get in this cafe, grab all the food and drinks as fast as possible, and then move to a traditional cafe, sell them all the stuff you grabbed except what you want to consume, and stay there to work on your laptop.

Doesn’t sound great for their business.

24 Paavo Ojala January 10, 2014 at 5:41 pm

It’s brilliant that they have noticed that people having a coffee at a cafe don’t really pay for a beverage, but for sitting down in a relaxing athmosphere in very expensive real estate. But after the new gimmick effect wears down pricing by minute would entice customers who want to pay attention to time and the rising total of the bill while they are having their coffee: i.e. people who don’t go to cafe’s but take their cofffee to go.

Instead of stressful stopwatch billing use bigger chunks of time or membership. Maybe the time has come for the starbucks VIP-lounges for members (or probably a separate chain as regular customers would dislike having their inferiority rubbed to their noses)

25 Artem January 10, 2014 at 7:46 pm

I frequent one of the Ziferblats in St. Petersburg, Russia, and for me (and for many other people) it’s much more about the atmosphere there than it is about coffee. This, and not the cheap coffee or innovative pricing model, is the real reason for their popularity. It’s very much about people working there (“helpers”, as they prefer to call themselves, not “staff/personnel”). You cannot easily replicate that, though many try where I live.

26 Mark Thorson January 10, 2014 at 8:36 pm

In the old Candid Camera TV show, this was one of the gags. Allen Funt was working the counter at a diner, and when he delivered the food, he’d start a timer like the ones used in taxicabs in those days. The customer would ask “What’s that?”, and he’d explain they were being charged for the time they spent sitting at the counter. Customers were shocked and generally had a bad reaction.

27 Rahul January 10, 2014 at 11:18 pm

The next gimmick ought to be congestion pricing in cafes. They could have an LCD screen on the storefront with dynamically updating prices.

28 Nikki January 11, 2014 at 12:51 am

Everybody is missing the point, including our dear host: it’s not a café. It’s basically a Moscow-on-Thames hostel that charges by the minute and closes at night, so instead of beds there are tables and chairs (salvaged, by the look of them) in a dingy room. A kettle is available, and a saucer with some crackers, and apparently you might be expected to clean up after yourself, seeing that you become “a sort of micro-tenant of the space, responsible for it.” A sloppily designed website boasting five pages of identical content, a Gmail address, and a Twitter account in broken English. The place runs mostly on donations, but donations don’t get The Guardian’s attention, hence the fee.

29 Keith January 11, 2014 at 8:31 am

I always thought Starbucks and Kinkos should merge. If Starbucks is your cube then Kinkos is the printer area and supply cabinet.

30 Rahul January 11, 2014 at 9:59 am

Looking at the typical long timers add a Bikram Yoga place next-doors too.

31 delirious January 12, 2014 at 8:56 pm

Are there any writers/blogs that discuss the crowding out effect of homeless individs on “public” spaces?
(ie libraries, parks)

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