Businesses lining up a queuing strategy
- 3 January 2012
- From the section Business
In the coffee shop queue, customers wait quietly and patiently for their morning caffeine fix.
At the nearby museum - where staff are well trained in dealing with queues - a sign on the barrier informs tourists and day trippers that they still have two hours to wait.
But the most animated are those queuing at the bus stop - a man in a suit sends a text message, two youngsters play with a stuffed Smurfs toy. All are being handed flyers advertising a local store.
Just like the flyer distributors, businesses across the UK are spotting the opportunities to sell and advertise to sitting duck customers who stand in queues, especially around Christmas, not to mention the January sales.
The modern-day shopper is now scientifically targeted with sights, sounds, and even smells, while their smartphones can be loaded with in-store vouchers and offers.
Some say it improves the shopping experience, others say there is a fine line between entertaining and frustrating customers.
Surveys on consumer behaviour offer differing conclusions on exactly how annoyed shoppers become when standing in a queue.
One poll, for Mintel, suggested that a third of people asked had walked out of a fashion store because they faced too long a wait. The most affluent, aged between 35 and 54, were most likely to walk away.
Another survey by Barclays found that more than two-thirds of shoppers had abandoned a queue because it was taking too long to be served.
The latest poll, from a mobile network, suggested that the patience tipping point while waiting for a supermarket checkout was six-and-a-half minutes.
Sue Eccles, head of education at the Media School at Bournemouth University, is an expert in consumer behaviour. She says that while there is a British tradition of tolerance of queues, there is a hint that people are becoming more impatient.
"New technology allows us to do things in our own time but queues are the antithesis of this," she says, admitting that the last big queue she stood in was at a post office.
"For many of us, when we are shopping or browsing online, we expect an instant response. That cuts across to other aspects of our lives. If we are going shopping, we expect to go straight to the till and pay fairly promptly.
"We will tolerate short queues but I think people now question the lengthy queues you sometimes see in post offices and some department stores."
On some occasions - such as the Wimbledon tennis championships or the January sales - standing in the queue for many hours is a source of pride.
"They do not queue just to be the first one to get in. There is a status in queuing. Sometimes a queue is very cool," she says.
The difficult balance to strike, she says, is for businesses and organisations to entertain those who are queuing for the experience, while ensuring efficiency for those carrying out a functional task.
"If you are trying to pay the council tax bill, then you do not want to be entertained. You want simple honesty - no adverts or piped music," she says.
"The key, as you see in some of the supermarkets, is to have a system where all the tills and queues are staffed at the very busy times, and then staff can be released to do other tasks when it quietens down.
"That is the sort of thing that customers appreciate. That, to customers, is good queue management."
Among those attempting to hit the correct spot on the spectrum of entertainment and efficiency is Mood Media Europe, a business that provides in-store sounds and screens for shops and services.
Its hi-tech output ranges from providing music that sounds like live radio to touchscreens that link up to shoppers' mobile phones.
The approach aims to reduce the perceived waiting time that shoppers face, explains the company's senior vice president of corporate marketing, Vanessa Walmsley, in a store that has had a Mood Media makeover.
In this store, screens switch from promotional messages to healthy eating campaigns, but each business has its own formula. One client asked for comedy sketches to be played to people queuing at busy times of the day.
In others, low-cost items are placed within arms length of the queue.
Mrs Walmsley says it is all part of shops becoming smarter and making their store an environment in which people are happy to spend time - and buy more.
In the future, this will mean more targeted messages sent to individual shoppers, perhaps on their mobiles, rather than bombarding them with details of offers.
There is a smell of success too, she says.
"Scent is a tiny part of our business but, of all the senses, it can create the biggest impact," she says.
These scents are created for fitness centres, fashion stores and hotels, to mask the nastier bodily smells that might hang around and replace them with something more attractive.
Such multi-sensory efforts might not be appreciated by consumers if they are stuck in a queue, according to Sue Eccles of Bournemouth University.
"All these other peripheral things, about queuing systems, videos, and merchandise are seen by most consumers as almost as insulting as standing in a queue," she says.
Some businesses pay for services like these, whereas others can find other ways to limit the frustration of waiting - by giving customers the tools to create their own entertainment.
While waiting in a queue on the telephone, customers will often hear a message explaining that their call is important and an adviser will be with them as soon as possible.
After two minutes, this can often become dispiriting at least, dismissed at worst, so Virgin Media has decided to make the wait an interactive experience.
Anyone waiting on the line for more than two minutes can choose their own hold music.
The idea, which was started by one Virgin service 11 years ago, gives the caller the chance to choose from a jukebox that is updated every month.
Recent callers could choose from a playlist that included Kylie's Put Your Hands Up, Lights by Ellie Goulding, and Mr Medicine by Eliza Doolittle.
Staff in the company's call centres decide on the playlist each month, with callers given the option to choose from five different music genres.
So firms are clearly paying considerable attention to the opportunities and restrictions that queues have on their business.
Anyone hoping for an end to queuing may have a long wait. That may well give shoppers something to think about the next time they are stuck in a queue.