Dibs! Customer Territorial Behaviors

Monica Arellano-Ongpin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Update, 5/11/2012: We’re pleased to report that “Dibs” has made an appearance on the Digital Life blog at MSNBC: “Study identifies 4 types of cafe Wi-Fi hogs.” We like Devin Coldewey’s new angle on how technology is changing the way customers use public spaces. Click here to read more.


They stake claim to favorite spots, spread belongings across empty seats, and linger for hours on their laptops while other customers stand waiting. Territorial behavior at cafes and other servicescapes is on the rise, but if the cozy chairs and free wi-fi were provided to make patrons feel at home, what can a manager—or a fellow customer—do about it?

A new study in the Journal of Service Research (JSR) examines the causes and impacts of these behaviors and offers practical suggestions for dealing with them. Merlyn A. Griffiths of the University of North Carolina and Mary C. Gilly of the University of California at Irvine published “Dibs! Customer Territorial Behaviors” on April 16, 2012 in JSR. To view other OnlineFirst articles, please click here.

Professor Griffiths explains in the executive summary:

We’ve all seen it: personal belongings spread on a café table; the individual customer occupying a table meant for four, pounding away on their laptop, oblivious to other customers’ search for a free table; or the customer camped out for hours nursing one cup of coffee. Customers display territorial behaviors every day in cafés, bookstores, fitness centers and even cruise ship lounges, lobbies and pools. Lingering in service settings may be a de facto result of changes in American work and living patterns. With consumers working from remote sites and home-based offices, their presence is increasing in settings like cafés. Consumer territorial behavior has real impact on other customers and on service operations, and managers are unsure how to respond.

In a research study of consumer territorial behavior within the context of cafés, Griffiths and Gilly find conflicting customer beliefs about territorial rights in cafés. Some customers believe in first come/first priority, where any open seat is theirs as long as they want. Others believe in rent in perpetuity, saying that any purchase provides rights to a seat even after the product has been consumed. Both beliefs result in decreased turnover for managers and frustrate customers who want to sit and consume café products. Others argue that customers only have the right to occupy space as long as it takes to consume their purchase. If everyone subscribed to this belief, consumer territoriality would not be a problem for managers. However, as Griffiths and Gilly find, “When consumers who believe that café space should be reserved for customers to consume café products encounter first come/first priority or rent in perpetuity occupants, conflict arises.” Territoriality thus has a negative effect on repatronage intentions, views of service quality, satisfaction with service, length of stay, and word of mouth communication. The research reveals that customers hold managers responsible when they cannot find a seat and employees are faced with mediating territorial disputes.

Attempts to control customer territoriality through signage and restricting Internet access have had limited success. Instead, better design of space can lead to less inter-customer conflict and smoother organizational processes. Space can be designed to separate patrons with differing needs. Starbucks’ customers post online their reactions to the new design features of some stores: “Accommodations include a separate upstairs section, filled with big wooden tables for working…lots of seating area and plenty of plugs for laptops.” The downstairs flows with customers who purchase and leave or stay only while consuming purchases. McDonald’s adopts a similar approach in their reimagining redesign efforts. Executives suggest zones will offer customers the opportunity to use the restaurant as they want, whether they want to come in alone and flip open a laptop or have a quick lunch with friends.

Managers who ignore customer territoriality risk alienating other customers and frustrating employees who must deal with conflicts. Griffiths and Gilly conclude, “First, managers must decide what kind of place they want to offer customers. Then, they must design space in a way that accommodates different customers’ needs.”

To learn more about the Journal of Service Research, please follow this link.

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