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Meet the man who understands supermarket lineups


One lousy experience in line can cost you a customer for life, says MIT professor Richard Larson. And he should know. Larson studies the psychology of lineups. “Dr.Queue”, as he’s called, shared his expertise with Canadian Grocer in this interview:

How did you get into researching the psychology of queueing?
In the late 1980s, I bought my son a bicycle at a big-box store. They gave me the receipt and I went to pick it up at the back of the store. There, I saw a woman in tears… she’d been waiting for 40 minutes.Then I noticed that I was waiting and waiting, while people who came after me quickly got their stuff. When I finally got the bicycle a half-hour later, I was so upset that I told my wife we’re returning it.

Well, I was still angry three weeks later. And I thought, professors at MIT aren’t supposed to be irrational, so my anger must be rational in some sense. I wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation and got a three-year research grant.

Which retailers get the waiting-inline experience right?
The shining star is Apple. You go into a store and there’s not the usual checkout place. A clerk will befriend you, help you and things and then check you out via mobile device on the spot and email you the receipt. That's if you go on a regular Tuesday at the mall. When a new product is coming out, it’s chic to be seen in a queue around the block waiting for your new iPhone.

What are the risks for retailers that always have long lines?
One of the axioms of queueing is that people’s willingness to wait is proportional to the amount of service they think they’re getting. So if they’re buying $250 worth of stuff at a big-box store, they’re willing to wait, especially if they think they’re getting it at the lowest possible price. But if that’s not the case, the risk to retailers is they will lose a customer for life.

What can retailers improve the queueing experience?
I tell my students they could become billionaires if they invented the solution to the single serpentine line for people with shopping carts, which make the line four times as long.

One thing for sure is never, ever let an idle express-checkout clerk beckon over a person with $150 worth of groceries because somebody will show up soon with six items expecting to get express checkout. This violation of fair play actually causes queue rage. People get very angry if the queues don’t operate the way they think that they should.

Any other ideas for grocers?
It would be nice to have a checkout display called “Forget Anything?” filled with items such as toothpaste and deodorant. Some stores have TVs airing a combination of entertainment and marketing. That's good. Anything to distract people from the monotony of the imprisonment of waiting in line with nothing to do.

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