Bad queues and why shopping can’t wait

We’ve been out and about exploring customer journeys and shopping with teenagers and twenty-somethings. One of the areas we have been looking at is waiting and queuing and how it works for younger, more digitally engaged shoppers. It wasn’t a big surprise to discover that this group’s tolerance for waiting is very low. That doesn’t mean they won’t queue if they believe something is worth queuing for, but it does mean they punish any delays they see as unnecessary very harshly.

Lots of research has been done on the psychology of queues and waiting. Daniel Kahneman and Ziv Carmon’s work in the area highlighted how much concepts of fairness drive our relationship with queues. They noted that queue jumping irritates those ahead of the jump as much as those behind it. Our sensitivity to queue unfairness is so strong that it provokes a response even among those it does not effect.

People are also very sensitive to the value of the thing they are queuing for and the degree to which they are informed as to how long the queue is likely to last. The worst waits are for things we don’t really care about and where we don’t know how long we will have to wait. There’s a reason why absurdist and existentialist plays like ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Huis Clos’ circle around people in perpetual waiting states – everyone can relate to the soul sapping nature of a bad queue.

Given these relatively obvious queue ‘rules’, it’s surprising that more brands haven’t improved the waiting bits of their customer journeys. Even if long queues are inevitable, Kahneman and Carmon’s research shows that if a wait ends positively – the queue speeds up say – we will look back on the experience happily. The converse is true for waiting that ends badly with the frustration of an unsuccessful wait driving lasting negativity around a brand.

Disney manipulate the psychology of the wait by allegedly overestimating queuing times in Disneyland so people are positively surprised when they reach their ride ahead of schedule. Another simple trick is enabling people to do stuff while they wait. Qurami is a new Italian app that taps into automated queuing systems and allows you to log in remotely. If you want to visit a busy gallery or you need to check in at the consulate you can join the queue from wherever you like. The app even lets you know when to leave and the best route to take to hit the queue at precisely the right time to make your appointment.

As real world stores shift from being transactional spaces to places where people go for experiences and specialist services, the need to manage waiting times and queues is increasing. There’s no point creating fantastic in-store experiences and training up your staff to deliver them perfectly if queues mean the experience is ruined for customers. People (and especially younger ones) are unlikely to book appointments in-store in advance of a shopping trip – they simply don’t plan that far ahead. They won’t queue in store either unless the thing is so special they feel it has to be done (think apple product launches and limited edition trainer releases). So enabling straightforward virtual queuing feels like a very smart way to bring people in store and help them experience the best of your brand without an annoying wait.