The psychology of retail queuing
It’s a well known ‘fact’ that British people are the best in the world at queuing. We seem to have the subtle ability to channel our frustration and boredom into tuts and eye rolls, rarely letting our emotions spill over further. However, the simple act of waiting in line at a checkout, a bus stop or outside an event has the effect of triggering certain responses in our brains that affect our mood and perception of our environment. In this guide, we will explore how the psychology of queuing affects how customers behave in store and the queue management measures that retailers and businesses can take to counteract any negative effects that it causes.
Bad queuing experiences can have the disastrous result of damaging your brand's reputation to the extent that a customer may not return to your store. Think of the queueing time within your business as the same as the loading time of a web page.
We’ve all been in queues which have lasted ‘forever’ or gone by surprisingly quickly. If it takes too long, then the chances are the customer is going to look elsewhere.
What is queue management?
Queue management refers to the way that you control the flow of people within a queue and the measures you can take to make the wait time faster and less stressful for customers. It is needed in almost every customer-facing industry and, when implemented well, can lead to better customer reviews, increased brand loyalty, and a boost in impulse purchases.
The different types of queue
You need to understand queuing psychology and the techniques that retailers use to distract customers in order to create the illusion of a shorter queue, otherwise known as perceived waiting times. Most retail stores use one of the two most common queuing systems: single-line and multi-line.
The multi-line queuing system is most often used by supermarkets, where shoppers have to pick a lane and hope that it moves quickly.
Single-line queues are commonly used in all other areas of retail, where there is only one queue for customers to join and the multiple checkouts are designated to customers waiting in the queue on a first come, first served basis.
Richard Larson, a professor specialising in queuing theory at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), says that if both types of queue are functioning normally, there is little difference in the wait time . However, the variance of wait times is bigger for the multi-line system as, if one line is taking longer than the other, it will slow down the service overall.
Perceived wait times
Retailers and event organisers have to think of their queue structures in a mathematical and psychological sense, as well as thinking about how queues can impact store layout.
Businesses need to focus on perceived waiting times rather than actual waiting times, as the two things are very different.
A watched pot never boils, so by the very same principle, a boring queue never moves forwards.
Studies have shown that boredom when queuing increases the perceived wait time for customers .
How do you deal with long lines?
No matter which queueing system you choose for your store, multi-line or single-line, there are always going to be occasions where your customers experience queues. So how can you avoid causing anxiety and stress to your customers and reduce the perceived wait time of your queues?
1. In-queue merchandising
David Maister, writing in ‘The Psychology of Waiting Lines’, tells us that ‘occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time’ . If customers are standing in a queue with nothing to occupy them, they are likely to start feeling frustrated which, in turn, will impact negatively on their impression of your business.
Counteract customer boredom by displaying smaller products, such as accessories, magazines and confectionery, within your queue so that customers can browse through while they wait. This also has the added bonus of increasing revenue.
2. In-queue entertainment
Humans need to be entertained in boring situations, especially in the modern era when nearly everybody has the Internet in the palm of their hands. If you know that your customers are going to be experiencing longer wait times than normal, you may consider giving them something to watch or read to keep their minds occupied.
If you run a restaurant, you could hand out menus to customers waiting for a table, which in turn reduces the service time once they are seated. Retailers can use digital signage to play short promotional videos to queuing customers.
3. In-queue signage and displays
Studies have shown that customers perceive ‘unfair waits’ as being longer than ‘fair waits’ . If customers feel as though other customers have jumped ahead of them, or if another line is moving faster than theirs, they will start to become anxious.
Studies show that “a customer’s tolerance for wait in queue is proportional to the complexity or quantity of service anticipated by the customer” . Use signage to indicate to customers where to queue and even how much longer they can expect to queue for from a certain point, to give realistic expectations.
In-queue merchandising systems
Queue barrier systems such as the one pictured, allow you to keep your customers in an orderly line while displaying sale items or small, inexpensive items, such as sweets and novelty products, that customers are more likely to buy on impulse.
There is a reason why magazines and newspapers are displayed next to checkouts. Giving waiting customers something to read or look at while queueing reduces boredom and increases the chance of further sales for the business.
Multi-buys and cross-category merchandising are highly recommended within in-queue merchandising displays, as 46% of shoppers say promotions would influence them to buy from a convenience store .
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Signage and add-ons
We ask ourselves questions when we have been queuing for a long time, including: Is this the right queue? Is somebody jumping ahead of me? Why is this queue taking so long?
Anxiety is a huge aspect of the queuing process for customers, especially within multi-lane queuing systems. Combat your customers’ fears by using clear signage to reassure them about how your system works. Signage can include information above each service desk to signify which line to join for ‘returns’ and ‘express lanes’.
This will help reduce anxiety and could provide potential revenue opportunities in the form of advertisements and informational notices .
Digital displays for queuing
Digital display screens and totems are a great way to provide distractions for waiting customers. 64% of UK shoppers check social media on their phones whilst waiting in queues (Tensator, 2018). Instead of allowing your customers to lose themselves in their own content, why not offer them something that benefits you as a business?
Playing videos, images or presentations on digital screens for customers to watch while waiting has been proven to reduce perceived wait times by as much as 35% .
We are drawn to moving displays more than static posters and a digital sign has the effect of drawing customer’s attention away from the queue.
Recall rates for advertisements on digital signage was 52% .
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The most important thing to consider when designing and implementing a queue system within your business is perceived wait times. However long a queue is, the perceived wait time can be reduced using some of the point of sale displays above, as well as employing the following techniques.
Be honest with customers
There is nothing worse than being stuck in a long queue with no end in sight, only for a customer service assistant to walk past and not give you any further information. Ask a member of staff to let customers know what is causing the delay. This up-front honesty will gain you respect from your customers and reassure them that the issue is being resolved.
If you do not give customers any indication of why the wait time is long, then you will leave them with a bad perception of your business and make them unlikely to return.
Begin service before the queue ends
Service doesn’t have to begin once customers reach the end of a queue. Once a customer has an interaction with the business, service has begun. Ways of starting service from within a waiting line can include: handing out menus to queuing diners, helping customers unload their trolleys or baskets, or handing out relevant paperwork to fill in while waiting.
All of these examples end up saving service time for the customer service employee at the end of the queue, which in turn will work to keep the queues moving faster.
A combination of good customer service, distractions and honesty will more likely leave customers with a positive view of your business, even if they’ve had to wait in line for a long time.
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