Biz 101: Tips, insights to help your shoppers avoid waiting-in-line frowns

In our struggling economy, long checkout lines can put a smile on a retailer’s face. But waiting in line can make an impatient shopper frown -- and worse. To make the checkout process less annoying, take these tips to better understand the psychology of standing in line.
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In our struggling economy, long checkout lines can put a smile on a retailer’s face. But waiting in line can make an impatient shopper frown -- and worse.

To make the checkout process less annoying, retailers are trying to better understand the psychology of standing in line. They are also using this knowledge to restructure checkout lines, to devise ways to make the checkout area more entertaining, and to help shoppers feel better when they are in line. 

“There’s an axiom that people’s ability to wait is proportional to the service they expect and receive,” Richard Larson, professor of engineering systems for MIT in Cambridge, Mass., told SNEWS®.

The line was sooooo long

To understand the psychology of shoppers in line, you first must realize that time plays tricks on them. There’s a common assumption that people are most frustrated by having to wait in lines for long periods of time, but wait times are usually not that bad. 

In its Aug. 19, 2009, edition, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Interestingly, waiting in line isn’t the time suck that people think it is. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey doesn’t even register time waiting in line as statistically significant on its list. Two years ago, in 20 out of 25 major U.S. cities, the average wait time at grocery stores was under five minutes, according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.”

Even if shoppers aren’t in line for very long, they tend to think they’ve been there for ages. Larson helped conduct a study that showed people overestimated their wait times by 23 percent.

Larson and other experts on shopping psychology say that a shopper’s perceptions and feelings can overwhelm what’s actually happening in the store. They say that battling time, and moving shoppers through lines more quickly, isn’t always the key to making the experience more pleasant. Rather, making shoppers feel better while waiting in line is more important. 

Trumping wait time

Don Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consulting firm, authored the whitepaper, “The Psychology of Waiting Lines.” He wrote that it’s important to make the checkout area “bright and cheery, attractive and inviting.” While this implies that your checkout area should have the aura of Disney World, it goes beyond your fixtures and lighting.

“Employees have to be seen as cheerful and helpful, and teaching employees how to be that way, especially after a long shift of high-stress interaction with numerous upset and unruly customers, families and children is a worthy design challenge in its own right,” wrote Norman.

Top service -- If store employees deliver top-notch service, it will trump issues concerning time, said Larson. Customers who stand in line reflecting on the wonderful help they received while browsing the store will stare at their watches less frequently, he said.

Updated check-out technology -- In recent years, retailers have also utilized new technologies to better serve customers while they are waiting. Larson noted that employees at Apple computer stores have handheld devices that allow them to process a customer’s payment while in line. Rental car companies have been doing this for years, processing payment with handheld machines as soon as you step out of the vehicle.

Scents make sense -- Aside from training employees to be friendly and helpful, you can also ease the minds of shoppers by appealing to their senses. The Wall Street Journal article noted that in 2002, motor vehicle departments in Australia pumped lavender scent into waiting areas. The 200 customers who spent more than 10 minutes in the scented waiting areas rated the DMV’s service more favorably than 200 people who were denied the pleasant aroma. Granted, you may not want to pump floral scents into your store, but you could brew some cider this holiday season to make shoppers think it’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.

Visual stimulation -- You could also provide visual stimulation for those in line. Anyone who has snaked their way through a line for a Disney ride has no doubt watched video monitors along the way, which entertain and provide safety information. Specialty retailers could distract shoppers with an inspirational video from a manufacturer. 

Tempting last-minute shopping -- TJ Maxx has gone the route of running checkout lines through alleys of shelves that hold chocolates, books and other items for sale. Many stores use this area for small impulse buys, gift items or accessories. This allows customers to entertain themselves by browsing for last-minute purchases, and this set-up also provides the retailer the opportunity for add-on sales. “Every cue is a business opportunity,” said Larson. “One thing they do is they allow people to buy more stuff.”

Fairness and order

A shopper’s mentality is also affected greatly by the actual structure of the checkout line. For example, grocery stores use multiple checkout lines, and shoppers tend to jockey for position in the shortest line. If another line appears to move faster, shoppers tend to feel they’ve been slighted by an unfair system.

During high traffic periods, many retailers such as Best Buy and bookstores set up a single line for multiple registers. The first person in line proceeds to the first available cash register, and customers aren’t forced to gamble on choosing a speedy line. Larson said single lines have proven to be very successful, and studies show that people are willing to wait in line twice as long to avoid any perceived unfairness.

One thing that really agitates customers is a disorderly checkout process, said Larson. If checkout lines are not clearly defined, shoppers are left to mill wondering where they are supposed to go. If you want to ease the minds of shoppers, eliminate any doubt as to where customer should cue up and how they should proceed.

Of course, none of this is rocket science, but there is indeed a science to making your customers happy. Armed with a little knowledge of consumer psychology, retailers can prevent short tempers from flaring in long checkout lines.

--Marcus Woolf

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