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The art, science and psychology of managing long queues

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art, science and psychology of managing long queuesAs a world-renown expert in queueing theory, MIT professor Richard Larson, aka “Dr. Queue,” knows all about waiting in lines. So it’s no surprise that when the Washington Post’s Wonkblog reporter Ana Swanson needed an expert source for her story on the art and science of managing long queues, she called on Dr. Queue.

According to Larson, people can expect to spend one to two years of their lives waiting in line, most of it stuck in traffic. But those five-minute waits in the checkout line at the supermarket, stuck behind someone talking on their smartphone while fumbling with a pile of coupons and dollar bills to give to the checker, can be just as annoying.

As Swanson notes in the article, waiting in line not only irritates the customer, it’s bad for business. “A long and unpleasant wait can damage a customer’s view of a brand, cause people to leave a line or not enter it in the first place (what researchers respectively call ‘reneging’ and ‘balking’), or discourage them from coming back to the store entirely,” she writes.

Businesses, of course, realize this and come up with various ways to solve the problem, starting with good, old-fashioned distraction such as magazines in the doctor’s waiting room and near the supermarket checkout lines. Larson, a past president of INFORMS, considers Disney the “undisputed master” of designing queues that are entertaining and that create anticipation for the ride. “In my book, [Disney is] number one in the psychology and in the physics of queues,” Larson tells the Post.

Writes Swanson: “The design is so successful that parents with young children can happily stand in line for an hour for a four-minute ride – a pretty remarkable feat, [Larson] points out. And of course, the capacity of the line and the ride are carefully calculated to balance customer satisfaction with profits.”

To read the complete article “What really drives you crazy about waiting in line (it actually isn’t the wait at all),” click here.

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