If there’s one thing Brits know how to do really well, its queuing.

Our proud reputation has been backed up by a recent survey which suggests we spend on average one year, two weeks and a day waiting in line in shops.

However the survey also suggests that even British consumers have a breaking point when it comes to queues:

  • Nine minutes is long enough to make us reconsider a purchase
  • We’re put off by queues more than seven people deep
  • And a whopping 90% of us avoid stores with long queues

So it’s clear that, despite our stoical reputation, waiting in queues isn’t something that makes us all happy.  So how can retailers make the experience of queuing less painful?

The Psychology of Waiting Lines, written by David H. Maister, summed up the First Law of Service as follows:

S = P – E

where ‘S’ stands for satisfaction, ‘P’ for perception and ‘E’ for expectation.

So how can this be interpreted?  Maister explains: “If you expect a certain level of service, and perceive the service reviewed to be higher, you are a satisfied client. If you perceive the same level [of service] as before, but expected higher, you are disappointed and, consequently, a dissatisfied client.”

So how might retailers help customers feel satisfied with their experience, even though queuing might be inevitable?

Here are some ideas to consider:

One line, several cashiers

We all know how frustrating it is when your queue hasn’t moved for ten minutes whilst the ones either side of you are moving quickly.  You’ve chosen the wrong one again!

To counter these common feelings of irritation and unfairness, retailers are increasingly implementing multiple-server waiting lines, so when it’s a customer’s turn they go to the next available cashier.  So no server is idle while there are shoppers waiting, every customer has a similar waiting time (no more Wrong Queue disasters), and, most importantly, it feels much fairer, as customers are served in the order they arrived.

Don’t let your staff hide

Having to queue to ask a question, and then queuing up a second time to pay, is both a waste of time and thoroughly exasperating.  Retailers need to ensure there are enough staff on the shop floor to answer any questions.  This also reduces the wait time at the counter – as the only customers queuing are those who need to pay.

Get mPOS (or get more of them!)

Mobile POS on tablets or even smartphones gives teams the option of having more devices during peak times with no major additional investment.  In addition to taking payments they can also have the flexibility to look up descriptions and check availability, increasing customer service further.

Syphon off time-consuming processes

Whilst straightforward sales can zip through fairly quickly, a queue can get quickly clogged up when a customer needs a different sort of help.  A straightforward solution is to have a special area for more complicated transactions which take much longer, such as returns, exchanges or signing up for loyalty cards.

Why not start to serve the customer while they are still in the queue?

It’s a truth that to a customer, once a transaction has started, the wait is over.  Retailers should try to take advantage of this perception by beginning a transaction with a customer before they actually reach the front of the line.  For example, waiting customers could start to fill in their paperwork before reaching a service agent.  Alternatively an employee could start to collect orders, scan items or package them before the customer reaches the point of transaction.  Doing this actually has a double benefit – it will cut actual, as well as perceived, wait times!

Make sure your POS system is clear and intuitive

We’ve all been in a supermarket queue where the cashier has to try to identify a specific vegetable before searching for its code from a long list and then carefully keying it in.  If there are several vegetables in the trolley it can really slow things down; cue agitated employees and annoyed consumers.

Make it easy on both the team and the customers by making sure your POS is as efficient as possible.

Virtual queues

Retailers could experiment with allowing customers to queue without actually having to stand in line.  The ‘deli-style’ ticket system (where you take a numbered ticket) is popular in service centres, post offices and hospitals but not yet popular in stores.  But if it’s a long-ish wait then allowing customers to grab a coffee or even browse whilst waiting is going to make them feel happier about the delay.

‘Real’ and ‘perceived’ queuing time

David Maister, in his paper The Psychology of Waiting Lines, concluded that ‘occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time’.

Keeping customers occupied will reduce their perceived waiting time, which in turn will significantly help to increase customer satisfaction.

Tactics such as playing music, positioning video screens towards the queue or having staff around to chat to the waiting line can help in occupying customers and reducing how long the queue feels.

Another option might be placing novelty items, magazines and lower-priced pick-ups along the line of the queue.  You’ll receive the added benefits of improved product awareness and  increased impulse sales.


Whist the Brits are renowned as queuing experts, there are limits even for us and we’re unhappy if we queue for longer than they feel is necessary.  Retailers need to be aware of this and look at everything in their power to reduce both the actual and the perceived length of the wait.

Bryony Graham


Further Reading

The Psychology of Waiting Lines,  David H. Maister