To queue or not to queue?

I wanted to write about this for a while. Our economy has become more service oriented than ever (in fact 76.7% of its GDP is services, about 1% is agriculture and the remainder is manufacturing). The problem with services is something called simultaneity, that is they are consumed as they are being provided. It typically means that a server can serve one customer at a time and if there are more customers, well, they have to wait.

Waiting is not very pleasant. So companies go all sort of distances to reduce it or at least manage the perception of waiting. A classical example (and a success story) is Disney’s fast pass where you can basically take a ticket and come back at a pre-specified time to enjoy an attraction. What is interesting is that retailers have joined the pack and now they use something called “queue busters”. They have been doing snaking lines, express lines, and self check-outs for a while, but queue busting goes beyond this. This WSJ video and article explains how (hat tip to Richard Gaines, alum of my 351 class, for this link). It also has a quite nice infographic.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

First, two facts from psychology of waiting. It turns out if men wait for more than 2 minutes  our perception of wait actually doubles. For women such inflation happens after 3 minutes of waiting. And if we feel like we are waiting a lot we may skip the purchase altogether. What do retailers do about it?

They deploy employees called queue busters to get to the lines and actually pre-scan items in shopping carts. This is a smart way to speed up queuing without actually opening additional checkout lines. Also psychologically the wait is no longer a wait – there is someone actually doing something with your order. And after your items are pre-scanned, leaving the queue will probably make you feel bad. So if is a choice between opening another register or deploying a queue buster, the latter might be preferred.

Another psychological fact – consumers actually prefer having multiple lines even though the wait there will be longer than in a single line. Somehow they feel that they can choose the best line. Well, for those guys I’ve got bad news: Odds of picking the fastest line are not too favorable. There is a reason to why a line next to ours is (almost) always faster.  Here is another video – just to make the point clear, scroll to about 2min 30 sec.

Finally, in support of single line queues, queuing has to be fair. And most of the times people interpret fairness as first-come-first-served. It works fine until it doesn’t and the whole situation becomes quite funny. Here is what Larry David has to say on the fairness of queuing.


One thought on “To queue or not to queue?

  1. I found this website for a firm that provides a sort of “queue busting” service for call lines. Normally when you call into a company, you wait in the line until someone serves you. But this company records your information and puts a “placeholder” down for you. So you can hang up without losing your place in line and then the service automatically calls you back when it’s your turn. I’m not sure if there are other competitors out there with a similar service, but why is this technology not being used/adopted rapidly? I feel that there must be obstacles and costs that complicate the call line while trying to make it more caller friendly.

    I saw this video ( about a portable scanner/”queue buster” but while other devices only forward your shopping cart to the cashier, this device prints out a QR code that records the price of the items in the shopping cart. So can’t a firm minimize its staff by opening less cashier aisles and by having self-service checkout machines that have QR scanners so the customers can exit the line and pay after they receive the QR code from the “queue buster”? Maybe if they limited this QR code-“queue buster” hybrid system to only people with credit/debit cards so the payment lines would be optimized as well.

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