Café owners cope with ‘camp out’ customers

By Ngoc Ngan   May 25, 2024 | 03:48 pm PT
Watching a group of customers enter his café with their own lunch bags one morning, Bao Minh sighed, knowing they would hold down a large table until at least late afternoon.

"Our shop is crowded," said Minh. "But only our electricity bills increase, not our revenue."

Minh is the owner of a coffee shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Located near three major universities, his shop has a capacity of 150 people. Their core customer base consists of students and office workers aged 19-35, who often linger there for two to three hours to study or work.

However, from mid-March, most customers come to avoid the sun, making the shop their "camp site" from morning until sunset.

Students often come in groups to work on projects together. They often take up 10 to 15 seats, but order drinks only once during their entire stay. What’s more, most bring and eat their own lunch, sometimes sneaking out to the café’s balcony to do so. The air conditioning system thus operates at full capacity on both floors, which contributes to a 20% rise in Minh’s electricity bills and operating costs.

"Customers hog up the space so those that come later have nowhere to sit," Minh said. "As a service provider, I cannot force them to leave or limit the number of hours they spend here."

He’s had to resort to turning down the air conditioner and blocking some electrical outlets to prevent guests from overstaying.

Customers at a coffee shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

Customers at a coffee shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

Food & beverage industry specialized sales management solution provider’s report on the F&B business market for the first half of 2023 found that only 5% of surveyed participants said they never went to cafés. Another 5% of participants reported that they went to cafés daily, indicating a growing demand for coffee shop visits among Vietnamese people.

However, amid record heat in Ho Chi Minh City, customers staying in cafés all day long poses a major headache for business owners like Minh.

Pham Thang, who runs a coffee shop in Thu Duc City, was stunned when he found out his café’s electricity and water bills went up by 50%.

"People are too lazy to go out when it is sunny, so when they make it to my shop, they sink in here," Thang observed.

His shop offers a green space with trees, sunshades and windcatchers, making it an ideal refuge to escape the heat.

At first, Thang arranged 26 chairs for guests, who he estimated would station themselves for one to two hours on average.

But gradually the average stay became an entire day, and the onggoing hot spells mean high usage of air conditioners and fans, even in the evening. Many café-goers take their lunch breaks at Thang’s place for their own convenience. They eat food they bring in, and they often even smoke, leaving staff no choice but to approach, interrupt and ask them kindly not to.

Tang Vi, another coffee shop owner in Binh Thanh District, said that the VND10,000-15,000 (US$0.4-$0.6) in profit he makes per cup of coffee is not sufficient to cover his expenses during peak summer heat.

Vi’s space can accommodate 120 people in the front yard, back yard, and two glass rooms equipped with cooling systems. When his cooling equipment is used at full capacity, electricity bills rise by 40%. Customers’ three-to-four-hour average occupancies therefore pose a protracted problem.

Analysis of daily temperature data recorded over the past 30 years in Ho Chi Minh City indicated that the first four months of 2024 included a series of long hot days that have hit new historical peaks.

According to Do Duy Thanh, Director of HoReCa Business School, it is inevitable that the demand for air-conditioned cafés increases during hot weather. Among café-goers, those with laptops, or "laptop people," stay the longest, he pointed out.

Small businesses often suffer more due to their low seat turnover rates, combined with increased utilities costs in summer. These put further pressures on their sales and profitability, he said.

Discussions about laptop people "camping out" at coffee shops have been going on for several years in developed countries. A lot of brands have aggressively sought to improve seat turnover rates by controlling the lengths of their guests’ prolonged stays. They’ve tried to do this by limiting Wi-Fi connection times and the number of electrical outlets. However, these measures have often been met with negative reactions.

Positive opinions

Huynh Tam, 29, a communications worker, considers coffee shops her "second office." She said she can’t work in the 15-square-meter apartment she rents in Binh Thanh District because it is too small and hot.

Therefore, she often camps at coffee shops from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. She has even become a café habitué year-round, not just during hot weather.

She usually purchases only one VND55,000 drink only once throughout her stay. Occasionally she buys a snack like flan or yogurt for an additional VND20,000.

"With or without me, coffee shops still have to turn on all those fans or air conditioners," said Tam. "They cannot blame ‘overstaying’ customers for their losses."

She said the shop owners she knows are supportive of her and other customers like her. They provide charging sockets and free iced tea. They believe occupied tables keep their shops’ vibe alive and attract more visitors, Tam argued.

She said long visits by customers are a positive boon for business, not a detrimental drag. Tam argued that the hot season brings more visitors than the rainy season and online orders also skyrocket during the summer, which can make up for slow in-store orders.

"Utilities costs do increase, but not to the extent that it greatly affects the overall cost structure," said Thanh.

Tran Trung Hieu, Director of the F&B Academy, said that summer café camping is only seasonal but can open up opportunities to increase customer bases by an average 30% year-round.

"Whether you like it or not, you have to turn on the air conditioners, fans, and install electrical outlets because those are basic amenities," said Hieu.

Experts suggest that coffee shops can seize the opportunity to sell innovatively. For example, every two hours, staff can ask customers if they need more drink or food, offering them a 10-20% discount.

"Happy customers present you with increased opportunities when the hot season is over," said Hieu. "The business of service provision is all about hospitality."

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