The psychology of queueing

4th April 18

With many years retail experience and a new degree in psychology; time spent studying about human behaviour got me thinking about the experience of queueing.

A survey by, an online auction site, suggests the average adult spends 5 hours 35 minutes a month in a queue.  Of which 53 minutes are spent in supermarkets, 33 minutes waiting to pay for clothes and 17 minutes waiting at customer service desks – I’m clearly not an average adult! want us to believe that online shopping will reduce this “waste of time”, however, a poor online experience brings its own wastes of time and frustrations. And what is more important? –  the length of time waiting or the way we experience the wait?

In psychological terms,“bad” queues create changed emotional states; especially queuing or waiting for anything where an individual identifies some sort injustice like queue jumping. This can even lead to higher levels of arousal such as anger or preparation for conflict – the fight or flight response. That’s probably what is going on for some people with the Black Friday scramble for bargains we saw on the news last year!

However there are “good” queues.  Dr Joe Moran author of “Queueing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime” explains that queuing for an event (something that has been anticipated and probably has allocated seating) is part of a ritual and while waiting, you are amongst like minded individuals who are probably very excited with high expectations of their up and coming experience.  This is a world away from the “bad” queues where it rapidly becomes “every man for himself”.
And you might like to think of yourself as a good queuer never given to flight or fight responses. Psychologist Dr Michael Sinclair suggests that it’s not necessarily a trait of an individual to be a good queuer or not but behaviours are variable response depending on the type and place of the queue itself. As he remarks “the same people who push to get on the bus are the same people who wait patiently in other queues”.

So it seems that it’s the queuing process and how it is managed that shapes the experience and not the nature or personality of the individuals in the queue.  In fact Barron, Haber and Rafaeli found in their research paper “The Effects of Queue Structure on Attitudes” that queue behaviour is really the result of the design of the waiting process.  Perceived fairness is critical to good queue management and single line queues have been widely adopted in retail and wider businesses. I wouldn’t for one minute advocate that supermarkets, should only have one till lane, however  they are increasingly introducing single line queues for self checkout.

Finally and as a bit of an aside, it seems that wherever you look or whoever you ask when trying to obtain anecdotal evidence of queue experience there is always one thing at the top of everyone’s list.  Unopened booths/tills/selling points when other lanes have queues drives people mad!!!!

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