Waiting in Lines and the Impact on Your Bottom Line

by Brian Field on 07-28-16

Estimates indicate that Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours per year waiting in lines.

And, the average consumer can spend up to two years waiting in lines! Recently, the TSA has made headlines with horror stories, in which travelers waited, trapped in seemingly endless security lines. The results: missed flights, overnights at the airport, a very public outcry and even lawsuits.

From TSA lines to checkout lines, an understanding of queueing theory coupled with a few simple strategies can facilitate a more streamlined checkout and, in turn, improve a customer’s overall experience.

Leveraging Data to Prepare
Essentially, queuing theory aims to limit wait times by predicting traffic and allocating resources as deemed appropriate. Initially applied to telephone operators, it is an impactful method for retail call centers and is applicable across customer-oriented operations.

In store, successful retailers schedule their staff based on traffic data. By understanding peak hours, retailers are able to optimize their labor allocation in a way that best meets customer needs and even increases sales. The same can be applied to the TSA based on the wealth of information from the airlines — e.g., flight schedules, estimated travelers, etc. – as well as historical data (assuming that weather incidents and holiday shifts are accounted for). From there, the TSA can understand how many and even what mix of agents to schedule, in addition to the number of checkpoints and screening areas to open.

Managing the Ebb and Flow
Effective managers — retail and TSA, alike — continuously observe the flow of traffic, identify bottle necks or gaps and make timely adjustments on the floor in order to manage the flow and provide better service levels. While it’s not a cutting-edge technological process, it is fundamental that capable associates are on the floor and engaged in order to ensure operations are running as smoothly as possible.

Setting Customer Expectations
One of the greatest issues with the TSA was the clear lack of communication — expectant travelers arriving to see lengthy lines with no understanding of where to go or what was happening. Just like in retail, it’s imperative to communicate with customers and offer information. Saying something as simple as, “I’ll be right with you,” or, “Sorry about the delay,” while making eye contact goes a long way to assuage emotions. Further, studies have shown that people who wait less than anticipated leave happier than those who wait longer than expected.

Ultimately, travelers have the same goals as retail customers: to get to their desired destination (or to make their desired purchase) with a minimum wait and an expectation of service dependent upon the brand promise. The labor strategy that the business employs goes a long way in delivering on that promise.

A version of this article originally appeared in Retail TouchPoints.

Read more posts by Brian Field

Brian Field is the Senior Director of Retail Consulting Practice for ShopperTrak, where he oversees the application of ShopperTrak's proprietary solutions to retailer-specific issues across different functional areas in order to drive top and bottom line store performance. Prior to joining ShopperTrak, Brian served in roles of increasing responsibility at Chico’s FAS Inc., including as the director of corporate store operations and finance. Brian has spent nearly four decades in the industry, and his experience includes: store sales and management, training, merchandising, strategic planning and analysis for brands as diverse as David’s Bridal, Circuit City and Macy's.