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Consumer insights: Buy and cell

Some restaurateurs ban cell phones, while others allow them. But how does the public feel?

Technically speaking, the wireless telephone has been around for decades now. But apart from honchos like '70s television detective Frank Cannon (who laid rubber around the Sunset Strip in his Lincoln Mark IV, hollering into a house phone bolted to the gear box), the technology has not reached average citizens until comparatively recently. And boy, has it: There are some 1.5 billion people worldwide who now use cell phones.

Sooner or later, all those yammering people go out to eat. Which has lately left the average restaurateur in a very tough spot.

By now, the decision whether to allow or prohibit cell-phone use in restaurants has kept many an operator wearing a groove in the floor with his pacing. It's a devil's deal: A choice on either side is bound to anger someone. Allow cell phones and many customers get annoyed. Ban them, and many other customers will feel they're being treated like children. Who knows—they may even avoid your place altogether.

But does this conventional wisdom hold up? How do customers really feel about cell phones in restaurants? Do they resent hearing those bleeping rings while they fork into that artichoke and dandelion salad? Or do they simply chalk it up to just another annoyance? After all, if you ban cell phones, you might as well ban screaming kids, too.

Research suggests that there are two major difficulties with making the cell-phone debate as black and white as many restaurateurs would like it to be. First, there's considerable disagreement over which kind of setting a restaurant is—public or private. Few Americans, for example, grumble when asked to turn off a cell phone inside a hospital. But what about Burger King?

Experts who've studied cell-phone behavior (and by now, there are many) have found that the general public seems to consider a restaurant more a public space than a private environment, where phone-use restrictions are better tolerated.

According to a 2004 survey by a major wireless services provider, some 98% of Americans will turn their cell phones off while in a house of worship, for example. But in a restaurant, it's a different story: Over a quarter of Americans (28%) will leave their cell phones on ring while in an eating place—and take incoming calls, too. (The issue of what is and is not a public place is even further confused by the finding that 77% of Americans say they've heard a cell phone conversation taking place in a public restroom.)

The second problem seems to be that while members of the public consider cell phone use to often be very annoying, they nearly never regard their own use to be so. Hence, the operator who bans cell phones outright is as likely to win applause as to personally offend. A 2004 survey by another wireless services provider found that 80% of Americans felt that cell phone users were less courteous today than they were five years ago. But 97% of the same sample group felt that they themselves were very courteous with their cell phones.

This said, there's compelling evidence that Americans have come over to one side of the argument in impressive numbers, and that's good news for you banners out there. Persuasive evidence has now emerged that people using cell phones in restaurants has risen to the level of an annoyance that requires correction.

A 2000 survey conducted on the streets of Washington, D.C. and Atlanta by the web site letstalk.com found that a whopping 57% of people favor a law that would ban cell phone use in classrooms, theaters, and restaurants. Same survey found that 43% of respondents now turn their cell phones off entirely when they eat out, and only 22% leave the ringer on and take a call if it comes in (this figure is somewhat lower than the 28% revealed in the other study, but those who would today answer a cell phone's ring while dining out remains below a third in either event).

A recently-released University of Michigan poll of 752 adults further underscores the finding that many Americans have grown sick of diners who use cell phones. It found that 6 in 10 cell phone users say that the use of a phone in public can be a "major irritation." This sample group was a tad less militant than the letstalk bunch, with only 4 in 10 calling for legislation that would ban cell phone use in restaurants and other public places. But still, we're talking 40% of Americans who would want legislative bodies to take up cell-phone blabbing as a matter of state or federal regulation.

Why are these people so annoyed? One study conducted in Great Britain determined that our brains are trained to complete conversations. Since only half a conversation is audible in the presence of someone using a cell phone, we quickly become frustrated and annoyed.

And the grumbling continues: The latest annual Lemelson-MIT Invention Index study found that cell phones are now the most hated invention that Americans cannot do without, with 30% of adults saying they despise—yet use—cell phones. Much of the reason for the hatred, according to researcher Stefan Marti, is the inappropriate ways cell phones are used, "such as [in] restaurants or movie theaters," he says.

What's more, evidence suggests that Americans are increasingly willing to restrict their own talking in advance of regulations, public or private, that would force them to. According to one study by an online wireless retailer, since 2000 Americans have become increasingly willing to turn off their cell phones in places like theaters, public transportation, and restaurants. In 2000, 31% of respondents felt it was okay to talk on a cell phone while in a restaurant. By 2002, that number had fallen to 28%—not a huge margin, but movement nonetheless.

Going back to that 2004 survey by the major wireless services provider, it's a fact that 54% of diners say they now voluntarily mute their phones when eating out.

Of course, while the studies did not specify the venues, it's likely that they're more willing to mute their phones in a four-star establishment than in, say, the soft-serve line at a quickservice joint. But no matter the restaurant setting, there's something to be learned by those businesses (be they restaurants or other providers) who've taken early leads in restricting cell phone use are finding that success depends on how it's done.

First, there's the martial-law approach. One Subway sandwich franchise in the Pittsburgh area has posted a sign advising customers not only to turn off their cell phones, but has a policy of not waiting on guests talking on one while standing in line. Then there's the solution pioneered by Freshies Restaurant and Bar in South Lake Tahoe. The standing no-cell-phone policy isn't strictly enforced, but annoyed customers are encouraged to give offenders a hard time about it.

Yet the better approaches probably lie in compromise and discretion. Last year the Vineyard in Bentonville, AR, began designating "no cell phone" areas of the restaurant, following an incident in which a therapist provided detail-rich marriage counseling to a client for 30 minutes over a cell phone while other diners were forced to listen in. The phone-free seating region changes by daypart.

Whether the public will ultimately be persuaded to turn off their ringers in your dining rooms is for the future to tell. Meanwhile, laws that restrict cell phone use are most commonly applied to drivers in their vehicles. Few would argue that talking on a cell phone can interfere with concentration while driving. But here's a twist: While 58% of people in one insurance-company poll admitted that they talked on cell phones while driving, 65% admitted that they ate take-out meals while at the wheel. Both were considered equally dangerous.

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