Is queuing on its way out?

Feature for Management Today when it was a magazine. It was published in 2013, so some of it is out of date, but queuing itself could hardly be more topical. Warning: it’s a long read.

The British are past masters of the art of queuing. But the experience is becoming increasingly modernised – and soon the traditional line may become a thing of the past.

You may not have met Terry Green, but you will certainly have heard his voice. Green is the man who says, in the enthusiastic up-and-down cadence of a game show host, ‘Cashier number three, please’.

Green and a colleague invented ‘electronic call forward’ in the late 1980s, and he can still be heard 30 million times a month in 8,000 locations around the UK. But queuing may be on its way out, as, indeed, may the whole ‘first come, first served’ idea. On the one hand, technology promises to transform the way we wait for goods and services, especially if we buy online as opposed to in a bricks and mortar shop. On the other hand, paying to ‘jump the queue’ is becoming ever more acceptable.

Britain is particularly associated with the queue. The Hungarian humorist George Mikes, writing just after the Second World War, when queuing was at its peak, described it as ‘the national passion of an otherwise dispassionate race’. We know the unwritten rules of queuing: you may not push in, but you may leave the queue momentarily and return to your original place; a close family member may join you; in long, immobile queues, you can leave an inanimate place-holder, for instance a bag, and come back later. The rules are far from universal. The Chinese and Indians have tried to teach queuing to their citizens, without obvious success, and foreign students arriving in Britain have been handed leaflets telling them how it works. It would not be worth even attempting to teach an Italian to queue in sporting, UK style.

Queues are an integral part of business. If your business produces goods or services that it cannot immediately supply, you will have a queue forming. The mathematics of customer flow is called ‘queuing theory’, and it is not for the faint-hearted. It began in 1909 with a paper about how to handle high volumes of traffic in the Copenhagen telephone exchange.

Richard Larson, professor of engineering systems at MIT, is the world expert in the subject and is known as ‘Dr Queue’. His interest in the psychology of queuing, as well as the maths, began, he says, when some bright spark decided to put mirrors in lobbies to ameliorate conditions for people waiting for lifts. Instead of feeling ‘momentarily, involuntarily imprisoned in their life’, they combed their hair, adjusted their ties, and checked out each other’s reflections. In the US today, half of the people in queues are checking their smartphones instead.

The rules about how to make people happier in queues were most comprehensively spelled out by a British management writer, David Maister. His 1985 article ‘The Psychology of Waiting in Lines’ remains essential reading for any retailer. One of Maister’s adages is that ‘Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time’: that’s how those mirrors work, and the entertainment-filled queue channels at Disney’s theme parks. It’s also one of the ways in which supermarkets have sold us self-service checkouts: the process actually takes about a third longer than going through a normal checkout, but it feels quicker because we’re doing something. Another Maister idea is: ‘People want to get started’, which is why supermarkets have made the belts at their tills longer: once you pile your stuff on, you no longer feel you are queuing. And children can pester you for the sweets and gifts on the other side of the belt.

There are many factors that can make waits seem longer. There is ‘anxiety’: the feeling that things will run out before you get to the front, or that you have been overlooked while waiting your turn. There are ‘uncertain waits’, when you are told only that ‘the doctor will be with you as soon as he can’: better to tell people they have a 15-minute wait, especially if you can serve them in 10 minutes. Then there are ‘unexplained waits’, where nothing seems to be happening and you are not told why; and, perhaps most importantly, ‘unfair waits’, where other people’s queues seem to be moving faster, or where people are cutting in at the front.

With queuing so destructive of customer satisfaction, it is not surprising that, towards the end of the last century, thoughts turned to ways in which the experience might be modernised. Two systems emerged: ‘take-a-ticket’ and the ‘linear queue’, known to Americans as the ‘serpentine line’.

Rodger Dudding was a British engineer living in Stockholm at the turn of the 1970s, where grocery shops would ask customers to take a piece of plastic with a number on it and wait for their number to be called. Being of what his wife calls ‘a Howard Hughes mentality’, he worried about how frequently these pieces of plastic were washed. So he devised a machine that would dispense numbered tickets from a roll, and an indicator panel to show the numbers, and he had a whole new business: ‘If you design a machine to accept a roll of tickets, which will only accept your design of tickets, you’ve got a ready sales position of consumables.’

He started a company, called Lonsto (for LONdon and STOckholm) and sold the system to an upmarket shoe-shop, and then to Clarks, and then to Tesco (despite the opposition of Jack Cohen, who liked queues because they made his shops look busy), and then to Green Shield stamps for its catalogue stores.

For a while, Lonsto’s virtual queuing system even did quite well with banks – it was popular with cashiers, who reported less queue rage. But then the banks turned to another innovation, the ‘linear queue’, in which customers line up in a single queue and then peel off to different cashiers as they reach the front. It came from the States, where it was pioneered by – accounts differ – any of the Chemical Bank, Wendy’s and American Airlines.

And then Terry Green came in. At the end of the 1980s, he was working for an engineering company that made the flexible fabric barriers that corral the linear queue customers. With an inventor called Martin Christie, he had come across a new technology, digital sound recording, that allowed a message to be played forever without degrading. They linked this to a number indicator board and indicators over the cashiers’ windows, and they, too, had invented a business. By removing the momentary hesitation when a customer reached the front of the queue, ‘cashier number three, please’ increased throughput by 15%. Green’s company, QM, thrived, and is now part of the Swedish QMatic group.

On today’s high street, the linear queue seems to have won. People may well end up queuing for longer than they would have in the one-queue-per-teller system, but because it’s fairer, it feels quicker. Linear queues are in most of the banks and in the express lines in the small supermarkets. However, for reasons of space, they have no application where people are making a big weekly shop. Instead, supermarkets use systems to ensure they open the optimum number of checkouts at any time. Sainsbury’s is trialling mobile phone apps that let you scan your purchases, drop them in your trolley, and pay for them in an instant transaction as you leave.

The take-a-ticket system, on the other hand, seems less common than it was, even at the delicatessen counters that were its stronghold. But that is an illusion. This system was the start of ‘virtual queuing’, and in the future everything is virtual. There might not be a physical ticket – the queue management firms are moving to text or smartphone-based alerting systems – but the principle remains the same: you take your place in an imaginary queue and wait until you are called.

Several factors give virtual queuing the edge. It’s more comfortable than standing in a line and it is also advantageous to the retailer. As Dudding recognised after he started selling his system, when customers are not physically queuing they can carry on shopping. It also allows a certain creativity in how customers are handled. ‘With a single line, it’s first in, first out,’ says Green, ‘but you can have a ticket-based queue where you don’t hold people in a line, and then you can start to play games with the order in which you serve them.’

In the early 1990s he developed a system for Argos that did exactly that. People who bought single items were pushed through more quickly than those who bought four or five. No one complained, perhaps because it complied with another of Maister’s adages: ‘The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait.’

‘Playing games’ with queues is very much an idea of our times. Modern virtual queuing, without the tickets and the displayed number, means queue-jumping can happen invisibly. It just requires an element of ‘triage’ at the front end. Telephone call centres, for instance, can prioritise and direct certain customers once they’ve been identified. Where customers are physically present, however, queuing has to be perceived as fair.

Increasingly, businesses are offering their customers the chance to avoid the wait, for hard cash. In doing so, they are simply reflecting the views of an important group of queue-haters: economists. To many economists, a queue is a failure of the pricing system to match supply with demand. Increase the price and the queue goes away. Queuing favours those with time over those with money; and all that time spent in queues is inefficient, and a loss to society.

Kaushik Basu, chief economist of the World Bank, once wrote a column for the BBC complaining about the endemic queues, real and virtual, in his native India. ‘The widespread resort to allocation by queuing that the bureaucracy tends to do is not in general a good idea,’ he noted. Nor was it in the Stalinist days of the Warsaw Pact, where inefficiency ruled and the customer was anything but king.

But queue-jumping for money is controversial, especially in the US, where ‘cutting in line’ is widely seen as unfair and even unAmerican. Michael Sandel’s bestseller What Money Can’t Buy: The moral limits of markets produced a long list of examples: amusement parks, the Empire State Building, express lanes into crowded cities. It is possible to hire people – often the homeless – to queue on your behalf for a congressional hearing or court case. Free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park and Pope Benedict’s masses have been resold instantly at a premium to those who wouldn’t line up. Banks, airlines and credit card companies have special ‘elite’ call centres. ‘Concierge’ doctors have no waiting lists at all for those who can afford them.

Faster access to health remains controversial. In the UK, with its socialised NHS, an accepted system of waiting lists is one of the measures by which the organisation is judged. After falling when billions of pounds flowed in under New Labour, these queues are now lengthening. Those who do not wish to wait can go private.

It has long been accepted that such systems operate in the UK, the spiritual home of queuing. BA offers a whole range of fast-track shortcuts to help premium customers at Heathrow. Those who turn left once they get on the plane have long been allowed on first. At least eight British airports have ‘priority lanes’ to take you to the front of the security queue, and Ryanair will sell you priority boarding. And what are the London congestion charge and the M6 toll road if not ways to buy your way past other drivers? There may be moral limits to markets, but in times of austerity where revenue is harder to come by, cash allows you to leave hoi polloi behind in the line.

What’s more, one of the more controversial American manifestations of queue-jumping, the electronic pass that lets you bypass the line-standers in theme parks, turns out to have been developed in Berkshire. It is not always popular, admits Ryan Dixon, marketing manager of Lo-Q, which operates the system in more than 20 attractions worldwide, including Dollywood and Legoland Windsor. ‘As you can imagine, some people will complain if you walk straight to the front of a queue that’s two hours long.’

Visitors to the parks pick up an electronic device, the Q-Bot, which allows them to reserve a place in a queue for a ride. It tells them when their time has come and they go to a special entrance, show the gadget and are immediately ushered aboard.

Lo-Q, which manages the systems and splits the revenue with the site owners, offers three levels of service. About 70% of visitors opt for the basic tariff that simply allows them to wait out the normal queue time elsewhere in the park. At Legoland, that costs £15 per person.

But some 10% of visitors take the premium option that gives them almost instant access for £70 each. Aggressive pricing keeps take-up of the passes low, which reduces the impact on ordinary families. The attraction operators, of course, like the virtual queuers: all the time they are not queuing, they are spending money on food, drinks and souvenirs. US operator Six Flags has installed the system in its 13 amusement parks. Lo-Q, meanwhile, has just launched Q-Smart, a smartphone-based version of the system.

The rise of queue-jumping, in all its forms, has been controversial. Many critics see it as a defeat for an essential quality of fairness in society: queuing is a great leveller. The man they call Dr Queue, though, does not foresee the end of the line: ‘I know that there are some who are claiming that it’s the end of queuing, but I totally disagree with them.’ Businesses will always, he says, have to restrict their capacity to supply goods and services to a level where it is economically viable, and some people will always prefer to wait rather than pay.

Green takes a similar view. ‘A queue exists where there is an excess of demand compared to the instantaneous supply,’ he says. ‘And that’s always going to happen. Many times over the years, retailers have said to me: “We’ve got to eliminate queues.” And I’ve said: “Well, that’s easy: just put a closed sign on the doors and lock them.”‘