I've already mentioned that I've found Panera's free WiFi useful, but after a few weeks more of reflection (and a few more weeks using the service), let me give them another wet sloppy kiss. The big deal here, from my perspective, is that here is basically a coast to coast network of free hotspots, located in prominent locations, with signs visible from the road, where you can count on being able to hop online with minimal hassle. They're not trying to make it a profit center -- they're not charging you $8 an hour or something crazy like silly Starbucks, they're just offering it for free as a low-pressure inducement to keep customers in their stores longer, buying coffee and pastries and soup and whatever else. I've found myself mentally noting the locations of all the Paneras I pass while I'm in transit from place to place. I don't know how common they are in other areas of the country, but I've pretty much determined that, at least in my area, I'm never farther away than 20 minutes or so from a free hotspot. There's no need to keep a cumbersome list handy, I just need to look for the the shop logo.
From a marketing perspective, this is a big "well, duh...", but the number of businesses that haven't figured out that they stand to make more money from providing net access as a value-add rather than a standalone profit center continues to amaze me.
The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits,
but not when it misses.
— Francis Bacon