“I’ve done mine!” “What?” “My Christmas shopping!”
I’m guessing everybody knows a friend who will say this around about now. When I hear it, I start to feel the dread of Xmas shopping and getting caught up in the crowds and queues. Like many consumers my age I feel I have everything I need – apart from time – and over the next few weeks I’ll be giving it away. ‘Shop online’, I hear you say. I mostly do, and always plan to go shopping at quieter times. But every year I still find myself trapped in a store, a supermarket or shopping centre – wasting time. I’m not alone!
If I’m thinking about Christmas queuing and how to avoid it, then I hope store managers are too. They know today’s shoppers are less tolerant and more precious about their time. Most of us are used to the convenience of Amazon and would pay a premium for better service. Waiting just feels like we are getting second-class. They must know that given a bad queuing experience we might abandon our purchase or on sight of a queue not even enter their store. Given the choice of an alternative, most of us would take it and then tell all our friends on social media how bad it was.
November is probably too late for extensive remodelling or new technology, but as the decorations go up and seasonal products arrive, there is still time to think about a few simple changes to make our waiting experience better. My colleagues at Konvergence and I have spent thousands of hours observing and talking to queuing customers and amassed quite a few tricks and tips along the way. So for the store managers out there (and impatient shoppers too!), here is our guide to help manage the queues this Xmas with some simple, practical and non-technological changes, which will have a positive impact on customers, staff and sales.
Tip #1 – Communicate your queue
Most customers don’t want to join a queue and by giving them the right information it will help them choose. Customers who do decide to queue will often be happier as they can plan for the delay. Even better if they are kept informed whilst they wait. (See our post ‘Queuing Complaints? How to Make Waiting Customers feel Better’).
Notices such as ‘We expect the store to be busy from and to’, communicated via your website, social media or in-store announcements, will encourage customers to arrive at less busy times. Metrolink Trams in Manchester make platform announcements about congestion days before football matches to ensure travelling customers are aware of matchday peaks and can plan accordingly.
Some media organisation will broadcast queueing information in real time and collect information directly from customers. In the run up to last Christmas The Liverpool Echo had a ‘spot a queue’ campaign, which they communicated via their website, social media and local radio.
Combining waiting time information with incentives can help smooth peak demand even further. Due to enhanced security procedures some football stadiums are encouraging supporters to arrive early by offering discounted drink prices at kiosks up to one hour before kick-off.
Tip #2 – Avoid disappointment
There is nothing more frustrating for customers than queueing for an item that is out of stock – even after waiting a relatively short while. The best thing to do is to identify these customers as early as possible before they join the queue and where appropriate offer them an alternative or back to stock date. Trust me they will thank you for it!
Always communicate out of stock products via your website, social media as well as instore signage. To cover every product is of course very difficult, but if a popular item has just run out, then a colleague interacting and informing the queue can help soften the disappointment.
Tip #3 – Review your EPOS procedures
If you are only just thinking that your EPOS system is out of date and a bit slow then it is unlikely an upgraded installation will be made in time for Christmas. However it’s important to check that your internet and Wi-Fi connections are working properly and to have a back-up plan if they fail. It’s probably too late to organise a training session with your current supplier, however some of your staff will usually have better knowledge and be quicker using your EPOS system than others. Short peer to peer sessions between experienced users and temporary staff will do wonders to streamline serving times and avoid an unnecessary build-up of queues.
Tip #4 – Work more efficiently
Think creatively about improving your process times. For example, government packaging regulations can make tobacco products more difficult for your colleagues behind counters to find. A simple menu and numbering system can speed up the transaction times dramatically. Also ensuring items such as football cards, stickers and other Christmas consumables are clearly labelled and within reach can all have a significant impact on efficiency as well as waiting times.
Tip #5 – Do tasks whilst customers are in the queue
Another way to reduce processing times is to look for activities that don’t need to be completed at a till. De-tagging clothes, retrieving locked-up items such as DVDs, up-selling consumables such as shoe cream, and completing sign-ups for mailing lists and store cards can all be done whilst customers are in the queue. Customers are usually more receptive and attentive whilst they are waiting as opposed to when they have just been served and ready to go.
Tip #6 – Do tasks after the queue
If it can’t be done in the queue what about after the queue? Why not think about a self-wrapping or bagging station? If some coffee shops trust us with the milk jug, then why not provide us with a pair of scissors, scotch tape and plain wrapping paper to prepare our gifts, so they are ready to be placed neatly under the tree?
Tip #7 – Sign-post complex transactions
Depending on the type of store, any transactions that take much longer than the average should be combined or given their own specialised station with clear demarcation and signage. Many larger stores now have a separate counter for their returns process and some sports shops provide a place for customisations such as football shirt names. Other services such as click and collect, appointment booking and call back arrangements can all be separated from the main queue. Nobody likes to be kept waiting by a customer complaining – no matter how entertaining this might be.
Tip #8 – Make sure ‘Fast Track’ is fast!
Think about your shortest service times and how often they occur before deciding whether to place them in a separate queue. Don’t think 8 items or less, think single products that customers buy on their own. How fast can you make each transaction? Contactless payment? Service outside the door? Could the customer stay in his car? Restrict timings if necessary. Note to my butcher – how about 7am Turkey collection at the back door with contactless payment?
Tip #9 – Give customers baskets
It’s important to help customers get the maximum amount of value from the time they spend with you. Often overlooked is making sure customers have everything they need whilst they are waiting in a queue. Customers with their hands full will often buy more if presented with a basket or a trolley (see Paco Underhill’s great book ‘Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping’ for more about this). Don’t just think about where to best place baskets, task colleagues to identify customers who look like they need one and ask them if there is anything else you can get them whilst they are waiting in the queue.
Tip #10 – Make the queue clear
Make sure customers can see where your line starts, ends and that they know they are in it. Think about the obstructions it will cause as well as the opportunities for placing products and displays. Most importantly, let them know if they are joining the right queue and at the right point. Clear signage and physical barriers can do a lot to make customers feel they are ‘in process’ and being served fairly. Staff presence, especially during peak times, can add a sense of calmness by policing the occasional queue-jumper and the inevitable ‘queue rage’ that would ensue.
Tip #11 – Make the queue move as fast as possible
The fastest and fairest solution is commonly called a ‘snake’ queue. There is only one way in and barriers, ropes and merchandise are used to optimise queueing space. When you reach the head of the queue you are directed to the next available counter. Call forward technology is commonly used, however at peak times a staff member located at the head of the queue, preparing and directing customers can often be much faster. Staff communication, especially during busy times, can provide a sense of urgency, a feeling of progress and will be appreciated by your customers.
Tip #12 – Keep tills open
Always make sure as many serving positions and tills are open as possible, especially at peak times. There is nothing more frustrating than observing tills that are open but not serving. Even worse is when we are in sight of staff conducting internal business or chatting. If a position is closed for good reason, make it clear to the customer. Hide it or apply a sticker saying: ‘Out of Order’.
Tip #13 – Manage expectations
Customers are more patient when they know how long they will be waiting and feel they are making progress. Most stores should have a fair idea of waiting times based on the number of customers in the queue. It’s important your staff communicate timings or use static signage at key stages. Theme parks pad out the wait times, so you always get to the head of queue more quickly than expected.
Tip #14 – Manage queue comfort
If your customers are forced to wait it’s important to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Provide them with chairs, water fountains, heaters and umbrellas if outside. Always go that extra mile if you can. Offer customers battery charging for their smartphones, free Wi-Fi to keep them connected, give them snacks and offer to stand in for them if they need to go to the bathroom.
Tip #15 – Deploy ‘virtual’ queuing
If too many customers waiting are causing an obstruction or you would like to encourage more customers to browse, consider deploying a virtual queueing system. This does not have to be technological. In fact, virtual queueing has been around much longer than any automated system. Placing a coin on a pool table, numbered ticket rolls and tokens are all virtual queuing systems. Using existing technology such as SMS can also be very useful to text customers who prefer to return to the store when it is less crowded. Get your virtual queueing system out when you need it and put it away when you don’t. Most importantly manage it, make sure it’s working and feels fair.
Tip #16 – Entertain your queue
If transaction times are short, the progress of the queue usually makes for its own entertainment providing customers are kept moving, their surroundings keep changing and they can see customers actively being served. For more complex transactions and when wait times feel longer, think about today’s basic entertainment needs. Most customers will reach for their smartphones to fill their time, so it’s important to provide them with good signal or Wi-Fi and battery charging facilities if possible.
Queuing customers are your captive audience, so use it as an opportunity for them to sample your new products or to hear about your latest promotions. Partnering with other stores can also be useful – who wouldn’t like to be offered samples from a nearby chocolatier?
Tip #17 – End on a high
Customers will always remember their last interaction disproportionally to the rest of the time they have spent in your store. Use positive psychology and good customer service to show that you care and have valued their time not just the money they have spent. Apologise if they have waited and offer them a treat. Families with young children will always remember if the last thing they were given was their favourite sweet.
Tip #18 – Review what you did in January
Let’s be honest, you won’t be able to improve everything all at once and on your first attempt. Some things will work better than others. Don’t just put what you’ve tried and learnt away with your decorations. Take some time to review what was good, bad and could be better and share with management and other branch colleagues. After all it will soon be Xmas again – Can’t Wait!
If you have any non-technological solutions or ideas that would make our queueing experience better this Xmas we’d love to hear from you!
Paul Purcell is the Managing Director of Konvergence, a field based research and consultancy group that uses observational research to solve real problems for real customers in real spaces – like queuing!
If you would like Konvergence to help with your queuing problem then please get in touch.