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Transforming your wait in line from torture to fun

Eliza Mills Mar 27, 2015

Transforming your wait in line from torture to fun

Eliza Mills Mar 27, 2015

Have you ever had such a bad experience somewhere — a store, a hotel, a restaurant, an airport — that you vowed never to return? 

That’s the question Dick Larson, a MIT engineering professor known as “Dr. Queue”, asks his students. Larson, an expert in the field of lines, says that in a class full of college students, more than half of the hands go up. In fact, it was his own horrible experience in line at a big box store that first interested Larson in lines. Now, he studies the ways to optimize structures for an overall improved experience.

People have been studying lines since at least 1955, when an experiment in New York attempted to solve an issue with complaints about elevator delays. Larson says a business analyst at Wharton suggested that floor to ceiling mirrors be installed next to an elevator to stop complaints about delayed wait times. The elevator wait times stayed the same, but with people occupied by their own reflections, complaints dropped to near zero.

Coincidentally, 1955 also marked the opening of Disneyland, which soon mastered the art of the line to become, as Larson says, “The best scientist and engineers of line management in the world.”

Disney’s Imagineers — a team of scientists, engineers and operations managers — design lines along side attractions at Disney parks. The story begins with the wait to ride, and the Imagineers calculate and optimize the experience based on the payoff.

“They design all kinds of distractions within the line … so that you feel like the amusement has actually started before you get on your two-minute ride up Space Mountain,” Larson says.

If you’ve waited in line at a theme park (especially if you’ve waited alongside a child), twisting and turning through rooms and meticulously decorated outdoor spaces, to the tune of a favorite theme song and with video updates on monitors overhead, you’ve experienced firsthand some of these careful scientific calculations at work.

It’s one thing to wait for the anticipated joy at the end of a theme park line, but lines aren’t all so happy, and many of us are in them every day. In traffic, on hold with the cable company, waiting for checkout at the grocery store. It can be exasperating. Larson says that a lot of this is about managing expectations and weighing value.

“If somebody is shopping for the family for the week, and you have $200 worth of groceries, you expect to wait in that line for awhile, because there might be another one or two carts ahead of you like that,” he says. “But if you go back the next day because you forgot a half a dozen eggs and a quart of milk, you expect to go in and out fast in the express checkout lane. It’s all a matter of expectations.”

If you’re shopping for a value, you may be more willing to brave a long line. Larson says big box customers are happier to wait, because they think they’re getting a deal, compared to if someone visits a high-end jewelry store, they may expect fast, personal service and no wait times. 

So can the theme-park models be applied to the outside world to make line experiences better elsewhere? Larson says other businesses can take some of the same ideas: distracting, amusing and teaching customers to keep their minds and eyes off their clocks.

And technologically, lines are changing everywhere. There are more options for self-service — at the gas station, the drug store or the bank — and more ways to preempt wait times by scheduling appointments, call back times, or “fast pass” style service: like at Disneyland, or in an airline’s mileage club, or in a toll lane, where you can pre-book or pay more so you can wait around less.

Lines may be improving, but Larson says when it comes to wait time, there’s still more work to do. 

“This is something that retailers and service providers don’t understand,” he says. “If they don’t pay a lot of attention to their customers’ line experiences, they may lose a customer for life.”

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