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.

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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?

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