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Panera Bread Stores Overloaded With Wi-Fi Users Who Won’t Leave

Phillip Dampier May 17, 2012 Broadband "Shortage", Consumer News, Data Caps, Video, Wireless Broadband 28 Comments

Panera Bread installed free Wi-Fi years before Starbucks got around to it, trying to boost customers in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  The experiment worked, according to USA Today, but now Panera has a new problem: their Wi-Fi networks are clogged and customers won’t leave to make room for others.

Panera executives say the company connects 2.7 million sessions a month at its 1,565 locations nationwide.  The result is Wi-Fi that slow to a crawl, overloaded with dozens of customers trying to get online at the same time. The problem has gotten even worse since wireless phone companies began usage capping and throttling their customers. That brings data-hungry people to Panera for the free Wi-Fi, but they don’t always stay for the food.

Now Panera is considering rationing its Wi-Fi service and giving priority to its most-frequent visitors who belong to the company’s MyPanera loyalty program, rewarding them with extra time on the network or prioritized traffic that forces non-members onto slower connections.

That could discourage casual visitors and those not purchasing food to look elsewhere.  JiWire, which sells ads on Wi-Fi networks, estimates 55% of those using free in-store Wi-Fi are searching for a faster connection than their wireless phone company provides. If Panera forces them to use slower speed connections, they may go somewhere else.

Panera, like coffee shops and other eateries, all face the same challenge: how to discourage the freeloaders who spend hours occupying tables and seats without buying anything while not alienating the customers that do buy and appreciate the wireless Internet connection as a free perk.

As wireless carriers continue to charge more for less service, those challenges are expected to only grow in the coming months.

[flv width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/USA Today Talking Tech Customers clog Paneras free Wi-Fi 5-17-12.flv[/flv]

USA Today visited Panera Bread to find out whether customers went for the food or the free Wi-Fi.  (2 minutes)

 

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Tk
Tk
8 years ago

Put a 90 minute daily time limit per wifi device by Mac address, or limit the time by making people run their devices on battery (no outlets)

James
James
8 years ago

Why not put up a password, change it daily, and write out the password on people’s receipts? Solves the problem of people just being there for the WiFi and not buying anything.

Scott
Scott
8 years ago

Their CTO or whoever is in charge is failing spectacularly if this has been going on for 2yrs. There’s a number of vendors, one such as Meraki that provide Wi-Fi access points built specificly to address serving public wi-fi either free or paid, and allow for restricting access to timed periods such as 15, 30 minutes, etc.. Or by giving out one-time codes.. You can then even block service and require the customer to purchase additional time beyond their free period for a nominal charge (or they could always buy another coffee and get another free code).

Smith6612
Smith6612
8 years ago
Reply to  Scott

True. All of the above works fine. Even then though, I don’t think they need to spend money replacing their current gear with something from Meraki for example if many of the shops I’ve seen run Captive Portals on their Wi-Fi. While I’ve never administered such a setup for Panera, it may be possible they simply VPN all of their traffic over a corporate network or they already have something running locally via a router (or perhaps via a DD-WRT unit). It’s not too hard if they’re already running a captive portal to get time restrictions up. Takes some time… Read more »

txpatriot
txpatriot
8 years ago

Interesting situation.

The commenters providing suggested solutions are even more interesting, but what I find MOST interesting is that, provided with a real live case of uncapped usage hurting everyone, Stop-the-Cap and author Phillip Dampier have absolutely NOTHING to suggest to deal with the problem. I guess I should be grateful that STC bothered to mention this case at all, rather than burying it. So STC I’m calling you out: should Panera “cap” its abusive free-riders, or not??

What say you?

Tk
Tk
8 years ago
Reply to  txpatriot

Perhaps Phillip is blaming the wireless phone company caps for this situation at Panera.

“The problem has gotten even worse since wireless phone companies began usage capping and throttling their customers. That brings data-hungry people to Panera for the free Wi-Fi, but they don’t always stay for the food.”

I don’t think Stop the Cap is against there being limits on free Internet services like this, but when we pay to subscribe to a service there should not be a cap, especially for landline services like fiber, cable, and DSL.

James R Curry
James R Curry
8 years ago

Hey Phillip, It’s a thorny subject. There are a lot of coffee shops that set themselves up as places for people to come and meet and work and study; it’s quite prevalent in student towns. Such places turn a small profit on these sorts of customers as they undoubtedly order things throughout the day, and they generally have the space. A lot of coffee customers are to-go orders, anyway, so I expect it doesn’t hurt them too much. This sets an expectation in the customer’s mind however that this is acceptable when they visit a place like Panera Bread, which… Read more »

txpatriot
txpatriot
8 years ago

“You should not read into every story written here as an effort to prove some point.”

Of course not — that’s why the website is titled “Stop the Cap” . . .

txpatriot
txpatriot
8 years ago

I was just yanking your chain (and being an @$$).

Scott
Scott
8 years ago

You’re partly correct about a new access point or router helping them. The problem with consumer or lower quality wireless access points is they do not distribute bandwidth evenly across lots of users. On a cheap linksys with 10mbit, you may have one user pulling down a video getting a whopping 5mbit, while the 10 other users visiting other bandwidth intensive sites and randomly get divied up paltry shares of 256kb/s – 768kb/s, etc. Of course the other issue is at some point you can only get so fast of a connection or justify it as a perk for customers,… Read more »

Alex Perrier
Alex Perrier
8 years ago

Another option is speed caps. i’ve experienced speeds of anywhere from 1 Mbit/s to 6 Mbit/s at Bell Wi-Fi hotspots. i think this is reasonable. Those who want higher speeds can normally get FTTN at home.

rebecca landry
rebecca landry
8 years ago

i go to wilmington ma panera and wifi not working today…when can i expect it to be up and running again…there was only myself using wifi this am..thanks

Laura J. Underwood
8 years ago

Just catching up with this. I use public wifi, and I always make a food and drink or book purchase when I do because I know that the wifi in most public places attracts too many freeloaders. I would not be the least bit miffed if Panera’s set a cap on either speed or time (or any place for that matter–I work in a public library, and we offer free wifi, and we get all day visitors who don’t have cards and don’t use our other facilities who settle in, try to eat their lunches, etc. and I am pushing… Read more »

LJW
LJW
7 years ago

Let’s apply some math to their problem. 2.7 sessions per month over 1,565 locations. Let’s assume 30 days per month and the sessions are spread out equally. That’s 1726 sessions per month per location. That’s 57.5 sessions per day per location. Doesn’t seem like too much of a problem. Of course I’m sitting here in a Panera in Cary, NC typing this. The problem I see is that no one is here. The problem I have is that the Internet connection is a T1. Literally, my phone is faster than that. I know 50/5 cable modem service is available because… Read more »

txpatriot
txpatriot
7 years ago
Reply to  LJW

What do you say when a customer complains that a free service is not adequate?

txpatriot
txpatriot
7 years ago

Phillip: have you heard of the “tragedy of the commons”?

If an otherwise costly service is provided for free, there is NEVER enough of it to meet demand. The more capacity Panera buys, the more freeloaders will show up to use it, get it? For the life of me I can’t understand how a business can give customers a free service, then have those same customers turn around and complain there isn’t enough of the free service!

We’ve built an entire society of people expecting free stuff . . .

txpatriot
txpatriot
7 years ago

Yes the great thing about the free market is that customers can vote with their feet, whether they don’t like the food, don’t like the wifi or don’t like the CEO’s pay.

Maybe its just me, but I’ve never sat in a McDonald’s and complained under my breath “Darn this free wifi — too darn slow”! I was thankful to have it, but like I said, maybe that’s just me.

txpatriot
txpatriot
7 years ago

touché

Scott
Scott
7 years ago
Reply to  txpatriot

Something along the lines of “You’re right Sir, clearly we underestimated demand in providing a free WiFi service, and we’d like to continue offering it while providing the same great experience you also get in our store.”

If they have no intention of fixing or improving it, they should just shut it down rather than offer a sub-par experience that only damages their customers enjoyment of their store likely resulting in them going elsewhere.

Otherwise it should be addressed with better hardware with QoS options and increased bandwidth for locations where the QoS management settings aren’t enough.

txpatriot
txpatriot
7 years ago
Reply to  Scott

Wow, the sense of entitlement evident here is beyond belief . . .

LJW
LJW
7 years ago
Reply to  txpatriot

If this were some sort of charity, then I’d agree. However, Panera is complaining about having customers in their stores. Most businesses see this as the biggest hurdle to overcome. Once in the store, it’s simply a sales job to make money off of them. Today, I planned to eat lunch at Panera, however since their Internet was intolerably slow when 5 people were there, it was useless when the lunch crowd came. I had to just leave because I couldn’t work. Didn’t bother to buy any food. Had the Internet service been decent, I would have stayed, eaten, and… Read more »

Adamo
Adamo
7 years ago

Good post LJW. Agreed. Today, I walked into Panera at around 5pm. My intention was to work on my laptop while having a coffee and then more than likely, ordering something to eat for dinner. I wasn’t aware of the 30 minute wifi limit. (otherwise I would have scratched Panera off my visit list. At around 5:30, I was starting to think about what I should order for dinner. In the middle of my research, I was kicked off the internet for surpassing my time limit. I spoke with the manager. Nothing he could do. So instead of spending $10-$15… Read more »

PaneraSucks
7 years ago

All Panera has to do is stop being cheap and get rid of the 802.11b garbage they use and jump on an 802.11N connection powered by an un throttled Cable connection and the problem is solved. It’s not too hard to understand yet Panera is so cheap they insist on making the wifi slow and unusable. Panera Bread wake up and upgrade your system you cheapo’s!

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