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The psychology of the queue

Everyone’s experienced it. You’re stuck at the back of a queue in store that doesn’t seem to be moving in the slightest.

There’s a screaming child behind you and a person coughing without covering their mouth.

Cue foot tapping, glancing around, smartphone browsing and interest waning by the second.

Usually, people accept queues as an inevitable part of retail when things get busy.

But Danish researchers have suggested a solution that some might recoil at – serving the people who get there last, first.

Researcher professor Lars Peter Osterdal believes that the first come, first served mentality is broken, as people arrive early to get in first, which increases the wait.

Researchers experimented with queuing systems to find an alternative.

First, they tried random selection – queuers would be selected from the queue and served at random, which was found to reduce waiting times.

But surprisingly, the most effective system was last come, last served.

People told about the new system tended to arrive at staggered times in fear of being first and having to wait, which resulted in shorter queues.

Osterdal acknowledges this could be difficult to implement, as people tend to be a bit disgruntled if they’re the ones who got there first and they’re waiting the longest.

Pre-warning is key, he says, so people can adjust their behaviour appropriately and schedule when to arrive.

Queuing theorists believe the most effective way to queue is to pick the long, snaking ‘serpentine’ line.

This is one long line in which you get sent to the next available register, rather than having to pick between several aisles.

Kmart recently changed its lines in New Zealand stores to this style, but not every retailer is quick to embrace the serpentine.

This is because of customer psychology.

People are naturally put off this line because it looks like it takes longer, so they prefer to try their luck with multiple aisles.

But with a store like in a supermarket, chances are a customer won’t get lucky and pick the fastest moving queue.

The odds are stacked against them – if there’s five aisles, they only have a one in five chance to get out of there pronto.

Another theory is the fastest line will be towards the left, as most of the population is right handed and have a natural inclination to head right.

Secure retail has a few tips for making queues a less painful experience for customers.

Many are already happening in some stores:

  • Mobile POS devices. Staff can use them to serve a customer any time, any place in the store, or take them aside from a long queue and speed up the process.
  • Contactless transactions. Wireless transactions can help a line pick up the pace a lot faster than someone having to dig around in their pocket for change, as customers can tap and go.
  • Self service. Customers are becoming accustomed to tech in all facets of their life, so giving them the option to serve themselves makes sense and makes things faster.

There’s also a GPS trolley being experimented with that could mean the end of queues.

Cambridge Consultants has created a device to be popped in a trolley, complete with sensors and a Bluetooth connection.

It tells retailers a shopper’s location in real time, which could be used to guide people towards offers they’re interested in when it’s busy, or alert staff to man the tills when needed.

However, it’s worth noting that queuing may not be such a bad thing, either – scientists have found people who queue put a higher value on goods and are patient, because they think their purchase is worth the wait.

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