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Grumbling is latest line on wait time

When “The Real Housewives of New York City” introduced Jules Wainstein, I thought they’d made a mistake – she seemed likable. But then, while interviewing a nanny applicant, she asked the prospective child rearer this question:

“Are you comfortable waiting in lines?” Did she mean like, at the ER if her kid fell and needed stitches? At school, waiting in line for dismissal? Nope. Jules wanted to know if the nanny was OK with being a human placeholder at the Bonpoint sample sale. “I don’t wait on lines,” Jules said.

Nobody likes waiting in lines. It’s a thing. A scientifically proven thing. And it’s too bad, because we spend about two years of our lives doing it, according to researchers at MIT.

Businesses have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make lines more bearable and efficient, because they stand to make more money if they can get us through them more quickly. About 40 percent of consumers have given up on purchases because lines were too long, according to a report from Oracle Corp. And if wait times were half as long, consumers would spend about 42 percent more.

Disney famously makes its lines easier to bear by making them part of the attraction, with videos, music and fun things to look at. It also shows estimated wait times, since uncertainty makes waiting harder, too. Apple has tried to break up bottlenecks by having customers register for appointments online. Airlines divide people into different boarding groups.

During concerts at Darien Lake this summer, I noticed people with wooden signs that said something like “Shortest line here” with an arrow. They would physically run from one line to another leading people to the quickest wait at the admissions and concessions gates. The Indiana Pacers basketball team has started filming its concessions lines, then using software to calculate the shortest wait times, and broadcasting the best lines to fans via an app.

At banks, movie theaters and TJ Maxx, you’ll find yourself in one long, winding line that ends at several cashiers. Studies have shown that mode of queuing to be the most efficient. The whole line moves together, and the next person in line is served by the next available cashier. It feels better as a consumer, because you’re constantly moving, and that goes a long way toward taking the stress out of waiting. It also takes the stress out of choosing which line to stand in. Studies have also shown those waits to be shorter than standing in a traditional line.

But those studies were based on mathematical models. When human behavior is properly accounted for, according to a newer study in Management Science, the one-single-serpentine-line method is actually proven less efficient. That’s because, when a cashier doesn’t feel personally responsible for an individual line of customers standing in front of them, he or she is not motivated to work faster.

But, it turns out, it’s not the length of the wait that kills us anyway, it’s the depth of our boredom. We’ve long tried to quell that boredom with impulse aisle magazine and Tic Tac purchases, earning stores $5.5 billion each year. Perhaps the best solution to the queue quandary has less to do with the science of the lines themselves and more to do with keeping us happy. How about better cellphone service and free Wi-Fi so we can check Facebook while we check out? We might even hope for an extra minute of me time in line.


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