People Waiting in Line: The Ultimate Annoyance

Blog post author
Rui Tian
May 26, 2021

In the era of same-day shipping and instant bank transfers, we have become a society that is always in a rush. We perceive waiting to be a waste of our time, and we habitually avoid activities that demand idle downtime. However, as consumers, we have not always had this mindset! Rather, our expectation for instant gratification is learned — our relationship with the world around us is filtered now through technology and a culture of productivity, which have conditioned us to prioritize convenience and efficiency above all else. Our collective impatience is part of the double-edged sword of innovation. 

In the world of retail, competitors have a choice: evolve or fall into obsolescence. Companies and brands around the globe must adapt to this new consumer trend in order to remain relevant in the marketplace. Here’s how people waiting in line are impacting the retail sector. 

The Psychology of Why People Hate Waiting in Line

Research on queue lines (people waiting in line) was first introduced in 1901 by Agner Krarup Erland.

While completing research for the Copenhagen Telephone Company, Erland noticed that people waiting in line was a common problem. It seemed to have a strong enough impact on the customer experience that it was worth studying; he introduced the concept of queueing theory, a branch of “mathematics that studies and models the act of waiting in line.”

Since then, researchers have continued to evolve the theory to understand further the psychological reasons behind why people hate waiting in line and figuring out how private companies can navigate that aversion. David Maister, author of “The Psychology of Waiting Lines,” discusses how people experience wait times and attempts to offer specific managerial advice to service organizations about how they can improve this aspect of their service encounters. Although nearly 40 years old, the fundamentals of his findings still hold true:

  • Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time
  • People Want to Get Started
  • Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer
  • Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits
  • Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits
  • Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits
  • The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait
  • Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits

One of the most exciting findings in the research is that the actual amount of time that consumers must wait in line is not the most important factor in how they perceive that time. Rather, the perceived wait line is what directly influences a customer’s reaction. 

How Waiting in Line Impacts Brand Relationships

The answer to how waiting in lines impacts the customer relationship with a brand has become very clear through the years: If a customer perceives that wait times in a specific store are generally short, they will gladly remain a customer.

However, if a customer continuously encounters long lines, they will seek an alternative shopping experience. 

Disney: A Prime Example

As one of the largest companies worldwide with the highest demand for its numerous products and activities, you would think that Disney might have problems with queues.

However, by implementing effective line strategies, they have been able to overcome one of the largest retail challenges.

Richard Larson, a professor who studies queuing theory at MIT, suggests that “[Disney is] number one in the psychology and in the physics of queues.” Their ability to implement services that reduce perceived wait times and their implementation of queue technologies have allowed them to attract even the most challenging and famously impatient clientele – children! Larson concludes that Disney’s strategy appears to be working, as evidenced by their ability to continue to set new visitor records. In 2014, profits from their parks and resorts reached nearly $2.6 billion, nearly doubling in only five years. 

Overall, reduced wait times help improve the customer experience by reducing customer anxieties and creating a positive brand identity.

How Waiting in Line Impacts Retail Operations

It is pretty intuitive that shorter lines equate to a higher number of customers, ultimately resulting in high profits.

How do retailers adopt methods, such as those utilized by Disney to improve their retail operations, and how might these new methods impact their operations?

The same technology that has bred such convenience-focused customers can empower retailers to reduce wait times — or, more importantly, to reduce perceived wait times — which has a substantial, positive impact on their operations. Organizations such as Omobori have developed innovative platforms dedicated to just this research. Here are some top features retailers can consider implementing if they are serious about improving their customer queue experience:

  • Use an online booking service to allow customers to book specific time slots to visit. These systems can even be configured to recognize VIP customers and prioritize them. 
  • Provide ticketing confirmations to reduce customer anxiety regarding their services. 
  • Send appointment notifications via online systems. This way, customers can arrive only when it is their time to receive services and wait in locations other than the store, preventing pileups. 
  • Expedite customer admission by monitoring their booking confirmation instead of spending manhours sending confirmations.
  • Leverage technology to reduce perceived wait times. Ombori offers numerous solutions, including Digital Signage, Customer Remote, Selfie Mirror, Cashier Assistant, and Endless Aisle products. 

If they leverage these tools well, retailers will benefit from improved services, directly affecting their overall operations:

  • Reduced line waiting times. Spreading out the usual rush by using appointment slots and ticketing helps prevent overwhelmed staff and pileups of customers, which means nobody ever waits in a long time. 
  • Increase sales. Tools like the Endless Aisle turn dead waiting time into an opportunity for customers to discover new products and make last-minute purchases, boosting revenue. 
  • Improve health and safety. Less dense crowding means less congestion and opportunity for accidents and illness — this is too obvious the benefit of both staff and customers. 
  • Provide transparency regarding wait times. Maister’s research is clear: Uncertain wait times feel longer than specific, finite wait times. Customers who know what to expect are less likely to feel indignant or misled. A company that provides transparency and communicates clearly about current wait times is making a worthy investment in customer experience. 
  • Improve staff management and staff satisfaction. When staff feel fulfilled and appreciated, they are more invested in meeting the needs of customers. Strong management and a cared-for retail team make a big difference in the goodwill that customers feel, even if they have to wait for that quality service experience. 
  • Provide analytical data to continuously advance operations. Ombori’s data tools turn oceans of numbers into actionable data. By leveraging it, retailers can improve the flow of traffic in their stores. 

What Retailers Should Consider Moving through 2021

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on all retailers.

Consumers became accustomed to new services, and the expectation of seamless online ordering, expedited pick-ups, and home delivery has become a new normal. After living in this environment for over a year, research suggests that customer expectations will remain similar to what they have experienced recently, even in a post-pandemic world. As a result, retailers must continue to adopt queue management solutions, such as Ombori’s, in the post-COVID world. 

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