The more cafés there are in the world, the more expert people have become at extending the lifespan of their favourite hot drink whilst they read, meet, work or surf the web. Whether they like it or not, café owners have to contend with the fact that their premises are frequently taken over by customers with ulterior motives for drinking coffee. So why not introduce pay-per-minute cafes, where customers pay for the time they spend in between sips?
That’s the idea behind Ziferblat, the first UK branch of a new Russian chain that has recently opened in Shoreditch, close to the center of London’s digital technology hub. For 3 pence per minute customers can stay as long as they like and consume as little or as much as they want, as the coffee is served for free.
The name Ziferblat has Russian and German origins, which translate as “clock face” in English. When entering the café customers take an alarm clock from a cupboard and note the time, then keep it with them before clocking out at the end. Whilst they’re in the café they can tuck into complimentary snacks (biscuits, fruit, vegetables), prepare their own food in the kitchen and help themselves to coffee. They can even have it made for them.
There’s also a piano – happily silent on the day I visited – that hints at the brand’s Russian roots, suggesting that aspiring Rachmaninoff’s would find this just the sort of place to while away an afternoon.
Ziferblat has already opened ten outlets in Russia in the past two years and is now aiming to take the concept to other parts of the world. With hostels, hotels and similar places often full with people either working remotely or enjoying the free Wi-Fi, the opportunity to expand the idea has obvious appeal. At risk of slightly jumping the gun the idea even has its own name. Allegedly the “coffice” will very shortly pass into popular use, regardless of whether it ever makes it into the dictionary.
The owner of Ziferblat, Ivan Mitin, has been struck by how quickly the new café in London has attracted the kind of customers who treat the place as if it were their own, to the extent that they even form orderly queues to wash their dishes. It’s not part of the rules, though obviously doesn’t go unappreciated. Mitin said that their attitude to customers is to treat them as “micro tenants”, sharing the same space and the social conventions that accompany this.
Like most new ideas, Ziferblat reflects trends evident in other parts of the economy. In addition to addressing the rising popularity of remote working, the café provides a solution to a problem that many bricks and mortar retailers have been trying to solve ever since the internet first started taking away their sales. How to make money out of all the browsing activity that takes place in stores before the customer leaves and completes the transaction online is an increasing problem.
In March last year it emerged that a Vera Wang boutique in Shanghai was charging women 3,000 yuan ,almost $500, to try on wedding dresses. The amount was deducted from the total price if a purchase was made, but was not returned if customers decided to look elsewhere. The charge was soon scrapped after it generated negative publicity. In the same month, a speciality food store in Brisbane adopted a similar tactic, charging people $5 to look around – an amount that was redeemed on any purchases made. Again public reaction was disapproving.
Yet it isn’t any surprise that store owners want to explore such ideas. A survey by think tank L2, last year, reported that 82per cent of smartphone users price check items on the internet while shopping. Even if they’re not doing this in the shopping aisles there is a good chance that they are doing this over a coffee, before either returning to make a purchase or instead ordering the goods directly with their smartphones.
With increasingly fast urban distribution services we’ll shortly reach the stage where shoppers will be able to browse stores, buy online and have the goods on their doorstep by the time they get home. Perhaps more retailers should think about charging for Wi-Fi access to ensure that they don’t get entirely left out of the money chain.
For the time being these sorts of issues aren’t likely to worry Ziferblat. A place which offers customers refuge from the mayhem of the high street might offer the company’s owners an equivalent sanctuary from the type of challenges their neighbours are facing. If it achieves that, the company’s business model will end up gaining more admirers than it ever will customers.