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  • Writer's pictureJesse Good

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

As we are now passed the holidays, I feel that I reasonably discuss something that we all hate—lines. The unfortunate thing is that the retail stores where most of us do our holiday shopping only see long, busy lines during a fraction of the year. That means most of them are not what we might hope them to be—queue savants.

Recently I found myself in a difficult line situation. I picked up the single item that I needed at Office Depot. As I approached the checkout queue, I observed that there were no cashiers at the main cash registers. The only available cashier was at the print desk. I made my way through a small opening in some of the shelving to put myself behind one person being helped and one other person waiting in line (I’m third in line.)

In a few moments two more people were behind me, making five total people in line. When a second cashier arrived at the front bank of cash registers, he helped the person closest to him, which was actually the fifth person in line. Then he helped the woman behind me (fourth person in line) about the same time the person in front of me moved up to be helped. I was now second in either line, but was unsure of which to choose.

I committed to the print desk line which proved to be an error. In the time that I waited the other cashier helped two more people. In short, I arrived third in line, but was helped SEVENTH. Who is controlling this line anyway?

Not long after, I was at Walmart in the returns line at the customer service desk. It was clear that there was one line, with two cashiers taking the next person in line. From the fourth position, I watched the young man in the third position move over to try to create a second line (putting him first in that line). The man who was in first position in the original line and had waited longer became very irate and an argument ensued about how many lines there were and who should be helped next. The young man eventually submitted and returned to the single line. Though he claimed innocence, I believe his motives were selfish.

The opposite occurred last week at Costco. A single line that was being helped by two cashiers was intended to be two lines. However, when an employee came to separate the lines, he did so in a way that people near the back of the single line were moved closer to the cash register than people who had waited longer. In this case, it was at the behest of an employee so no one voiced any frustration, but it made for an interesting observation to hear people mumble under .

So whose line is it, anyway?

It belongs to the business.

Sadly, most businesses leave it to their customers to figure out how the queue process works and to make it work among themselves accordingly. In reality, a queue is an element of the Extrapersonal Force in Customer Science (for more explanation on Customer Science, click here). When properly owned and maintained by the business, it can be a factor in a successful customer experience.

Often when you talk about standing in long lines, you probably think of Disney Theme Parks. They are known for long lines. Yet, they still own and maintain the experience that occurs in those lines. Disney makes the queue part of the experience. In many cases there is some form of entertainment or storytelling that occurs long before you are on the actual attraction. Cast members are trained to entertain and otherwise occupy the attention of guests waiting in line. Additionally, the setting is designed to make the wait seem shorter. And to help with the long lines, Disney created the FastPass, allowing everyone opportunities to bypass the line altogether.

I offer three ideas to make your queue experience better for your customers.

  1. First come, first serve. In each of my examples, customers felt slighted because they arrived first, but were not helped first. Cashiers or other queue attendants should be perceptive of what is happening in their line, and ensuring that customers are served as best as possible, in the order that they arrived. A single line that splits into many cashiers is better than multiple lines. It looks longer but is actually the best way to ensure that those who arrive first, are helped first. I had the privilege of working at Toys ‘R’ Us on a Black Friday and was in charge of the queue. Operating a single line which split to multiple cashiers was easier for the customers and easier for me as the employee. The employees own the line, not the customers.

  2. Keep lines moving. Perception plays a big part in why we hate waiting in line. No matter how long the line is, we are happier to be in one that is moving. This is why many fast food restaurants use a second drive-thru window. They use one to collect money and keep the line moving, the other to deliver your meal. The business owns the line, not the customers.

  3. Eliminate the line (or at least waiting in line). Modern technology has allowed us in some cases to eliminate the line altogether. Purchasing movie tickets for a movie premier used to require camping out in front of the theater. Now you can go online, and not just purchase your ticket, but reserve the seat you will be sitting in as well. Similarly, some call centers now offer technology that will call you back when a rep is available to help you. This creates a far better experience than waiting on hold listening to music or advertisements for the company’s product. The company owns the line (if there is one), not the customers.


A Timetrade survey of the retail industry found that...

70% of retailers report consumers will wait

five minutes or less before a customer

abandons a purchase and leaves the store.

(though as a customer scientist, I have waited fourteen minutes for something that was supposed to be hot and ready for pickup). Creating efficiency in your queue process isn’t just an important part of customer service, but rather, plays into how your customers perceive your entire experience. Own the line and create the experience you want your customers to have.

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Jesse B Good

Speaker, Author, Customer Experience Marketing Expert

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