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First Person

Retail Therapy

With the year’s biggest shopping day looming, MIT professor Dick Larson, a.k.a. “Dr. Queue,” talks about the science and psychology of waiting in line.

By Billy Baker
November 22, 2009

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How do we survive the mall?

The lines are shortest the last hour before closing. And park farthest from the main entrance; that’s where the spots are. Trolling for a closer spot wastes psychic energy, and it can lead to queue rage.

Queue rage? That’s an actual term? Yes. And it can lead to violence. There was a case at a supermarket in Milwaukee where a woman got upset that the person in front of her had too many items in the express lane, followed her out to her car, and chopped off half her nose with a hunting knife.

Do stores understand this stress? When I ask my students if they’ve ever had a queuing experience so bad they made a lifetime commitment not to go back to that store, more than half raise their hands. I don’t think retailers realize how important that is. A bad queuing experience dominates low prices.

Waiting in line is one of the only times I’ll have a conversation with a stranger, which is nice. Is it possible to reframe the situation to make a queue tolerable, even enjoyable? Sure. The Machiavellian stars of queuing theory are the Disney parks. They employ people to analyze their lines and maximize the positive experience with things to look at, so you think the amusement has already started.

What makes a line work or not? The serpentine line, which was invented by Wendy’s, guarantees that the first one in will be the first served. Parallel lines, like you see at a supermarket, create what we call slips and skips. There’s a high probability that a person who joins an adjacent line after you gets served before you, creating the perspective that you’ve been skipped. A study at Duke University found that people were willing to wait twice as long for a guarantee of first come first served.

Who gets it? The Apple stores. Someone meets you at the door, becomes your personal server, and rings up your purchase on a hand-held device. There’s no queuing involved. It’s phenomenal.

(Photograph by Tim Gray)
  • November 22, 2009 cover
  • november 22 globe magazine cover
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