Do we wait too long?

As the school year starts in Atlanta, so inevitably does this blog. With a backlog of articles to write about, I decided to take on this recent one published by Alex Stone in NY Times. Its basic premise is not new: people feel they wait longer if they are not doing anything during that time. Thus, managing the perceived wait is just as important as managing the actual wait (if not more).  What is interesting, though, is the examples that the author gives to make the point.

SOME years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

This strategy must have worked especially given the fact that people overestimate the wait by 30 to 40% if they are idle. Another example speaks to perennial lines to cash registers at supermarkets. Retailers are pretty reluctant getting rid of them, even though a single line served by all cashiers would be much faster. There are good reasons for that. First, a longer snaking line might scare customers away. Second, is the opportunity to sell a customer something during this wait: chocolate, gum, magazine. These impulse buys, it turns out, account for $5.5bln per year in sales.