Why time is money
One of the biggest contributors to a customer’s evaluation of a service is queuing time. Long waiting times are associated with significant irritation and an overall negative evaluation, resulting in the customer leaving the store with a poor impression of the brand in question.
There are also direct negative effects of long queuing times, as research has shown that queuing leads to behaviours that result in purchase abandonment. For example, customers may enter the queue but lose their patience and leave before being served, known as ‘reneging’; or they may simply refuse to enter the queue due to the perceived waiting time, known as ‘balking’. Indeed, 60% of consumers admit to reneging or balking when faced with a queue. Queues therefore act as a barrier to purchases in consumer decision-making, as they force us to stop and question whether the product is really worth it.
Reducing long waiting times should be a priority for retailers, as it will increase both customer satisfaction and sales. Nevertheless, the consumer’s perceived waiting time is what they will base their behavioural decisions and service evaluation on, so this must be reduced to achieve results.
Perceived waiting time
Researchers have investigated whether different queuing systems might change perceived waiting time. For example, one study examined whether a single queuing system, in which one line is formed for multiple servers, is more effective than a multiple queuing system, in which customers choose to queue in one of many lines directly in front of the individual servers.
Some retailers have argued that a single line is more effective because it eliminates the stress of choosing a queue and comparing waiting times, and is seen as more ‘fair’ due to the first-come, first-served guarantee. However, results showed that queuing systems did not impact upon customers’ perceived waiting times. A more positively evaluated waiting environment and a lower objective waiting time were able to change waiting time perceptions far more successfully. Hence, improving the waiting environment and objectively reducing the waiting time is crucial.
Providing a positive waiting environment
When it comes to producing a more positive waiting environment, retailers need to create an atmosphere that is pleasant and engaging. This can be achieved by incorporating technology into queues to inform and appeal to the customer with relevant information - for example, placing RFID (Radio-frequency identification) enabled mirrors near queues, to show customers their dress being worn on a catwalk, or a top footballer playing in the trainers they’re holding. Also, providing up-to-date wait duration and queuing information through digital signs may be key to improving the waiting environment. This information allows customers to maintain a sense of control over the queuing experience, and reassures them that they will be served, which in turn positively affects their emotional response to the wait.
To address the second component - objectively reducing waiting time - retailers have embraced new technologies, such as contactless payments, self-checkouts or scanning items as you shop, to help shrink queues. One method that is currently being experimented with is accepting mobile phone payments, as demonstrated by Starbucks’ system in which the customer orders and pays via their mobile, prior to popping into the store to pick up their drink, resulting in a queue-less process.
However, such technological advances in retail come with a warning. They only work when the demographics of the consumer in the store are just right. If those attempting to use self-checkouts are not technically ‘savvy’, they’re likely to have issues using the machines, which causes delays; or avoid them completely, resulting in long queues at staffed checkouts. Hence, this queue-less store will become increasingly viable once we have a totally technologically savvy population.
In addition a technically savvy consumer, we also need a consumer who is willing to embrace queue-less mobile payments. If the queue-less process is a hassle and demands more effort from the consumer, some may prefer to stand in a line for five minutes. So retailers should focus on providing a service that reduces waiting times but does not face the customer with a stressful task. For example, one solution may be to implement integrated payment solutions that provide retailers with portable card readers, so customers can make purchases from wherever they are in the store. Such a system is also flexible and enables retailers to quickly adjust the number of purchase points they have based on how busy the store is.
Ultimately, retailers need to reduce consumers’ perceived waiting times, firstly by coming up with new ways to improve the queuing environment, which can be achieved through entertainment and information via digital signage, for example. Secondly, retailers should invest in innovative technology to speed up the payment process and offer more purchase points than just tills at the back of the shop.