A Behavioral Science Perspective to Queuing

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Billions of consumer dollars are either made or lost depending on the way businesses manage customer queues. Lengthy wait times can damage brand perception, lead to line abandonment or worst-case scenario, stop customers from coming back to the store/venue/restaurant or bank branch altogether. I think we’d all agree there is nothing enjoyable about waiting in line, but there are some best practices that can be implemented to make it more tolerable. Each of these best practices is rooted in psychology and behavioral science. First and foremost, there is a deeply rooted social aspect to queuing that needs to be understood. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Manage customer expectations
    People waiting in line need to feel like they’re making progress. They’re afraid of being forgotten and want to feel recognized. Various ways to achieve this include telling them that you’ll be right with them (as in a restaurant) or displaying wait times at different points in the line to remind them that progress is being made.
  • Don’t forget the line design
    Instead of one straight long line, serpentine lines that snake back and forth make the user seem like they are making progress each time they reach the end of a segment and loop back the other way. Even though line-ups at an airport can seem daunting, the serpentine lines help manage the perception of a long wait as you round each corner.
  • Give your customers something to do
    Companies can distract customers waiting in line to make the wait seem shorter. All that’s required is to take their minds off the wait. This can be done using digital signage and video screens. Why not use this opportunity to market products and services in discreet ways?
  • Give reassurances
    This alleviates anxiety. Examples include communicating that tickets are still available for a performance, using soothing colors and scents to make people relax and giving constant updates. Managing people’s expectations is half the battle. Disney theme parks do a great job managing expectations by telling you how much longer you have to wait. They then usually end up beating that forecasted wait time so you feel even though you have waited you have come out ahead.
  • Provide a reason for the wait and make it equitable
    Lines can be labeled for different purposes. Customers will understand if one line is moving faster then another if they understand the reason for it (people in that line pre-booked, quicker type of transaction – ticket purchase versus baggage drop, express checkout, etc.). Lines need to feel like they are equitable. I often find myself counting the number of items that someone is placing on the express counter in front of me just to ensure they are following the rules! We conducted a quick survey of 100 people in our lab and 98% indicated that they have felt anxiety when another line is moving faster than the one they picked and there is no apparent reason for that line to be moving faster.
  • Use technology
    Increasingly, modern technology is being used for managing lines. Mobile apps can be used to order services ahead of time so when the customer arrives their order is ready. By providing a text number, a restaurant can let you know when a table is available, eliminating the need to stand in line. Apple has been on the leading edge of using technology by eliminating a checkout area in their stores. When waiting for the Genius Bar you are free to wander the mall and then come back when you receive your text.

When redesigning front ends or any queue system for venues, QSR or other retail environments it is important to understand the social and behavioral impacts of queuing. At Explorer, we put our behaviorists on site or extensively use camera’s to measure the impact of different queuing strategies. We have found that small nudges can result in dramatic changes in queuing behavior.

Anne Stephenson
Partner, Explorer Research

anne stephenson

Consumer Decision Making,Retail