Long lines cost retailers a collective $37.7 billion a year. They’re also the element of your customers’ shopping experience that they’re least happy with. Only 23% of shoppers say they are satisfied with the length of the lines at their preferred supermarket. Meanwhile, 18% of shoppers say they’ll choose a competing grocery store for a better checkout experience and a shorter queue.
Queuing plays a significant role in the customer experience — more than retailers previously thought. Finding ways to manage lines and create the best customer queuing system can have a considerable impact on how long customers wait and improve your ability to serve customers. We’ve created this overview of the processes, tools and tricks you can use to enhance your customers’ queuing experience.
What Are Customer Queues?
Customer queues exist throughout your supermarket or retail store. Checkout aisles and service desks are two prime examples. Grocery stores may have additional, miniature lines at the deli or seafood counters. Take-a-number systems, often used in those departments, create customer queues without asking patrons to stand in a single file.
Meanwhile, department stores might create checkout queues for popular departments, making it easier for customers to find the checkout counter and wait in a shorter line. Anywhere where your customers have to line up to receive service in an orderly fashion counts as a customer queue. However, not all queues involve standing in line, in the traditional sense. You may have experienced a digital customer queue if you’ve ever waited to connect with a customer service agent online.
Customer queues have been a staple of retail and most in-person, service-based industries. Patients wait in a less-obvious customer queue at the hospital or doctor’s office. In this case, the line is disguised as a waiting room, with the queuing happening in the back office as nurses prepare exam rooms and keep a list of arrivals at the check-in counter. Restaurants employ customer queuing during busy times as diners wait to be seated. Dining facilities have found ways to improve the waiting experience by giving customers a call or text when their table is ready.
Queuing isn’t always first-come, first-serve. In stores, where most queuing involves customers physically standing in line, the order is determined by the speed of checkout lanes. This phenomenon is one of retail’s main concerns when it comes to customer queues. When lines are organized into parallel rows, some can get held up. Larger basket sizes, slow equipment or an issue requiring a manager’s attention can hold up the line for one register. This clog leads the lanes on either side to move faster. Customers become frustrated when they see people who arrived after them being served before them in the lines nearby. So, how can retailers resolve this and all the issues that lead to unbearable wait times?
Customer Behavior in the Queuing System
The first step to resolving issues in the waiting line is understanding the customer psychology that contributes to them. Your customers can spend over an hour leisurely comparing brands, browsing your aisles and generally enjoying the experience for it to be suddenly sullied by a seven-minute wait at checkout. Here are some of the consumer behaviors at play in your checkout aisles:
- Jockeying: Also known as queue jumping, jockeying involves customers switching lines to avoid long waits. A non-retail example of this is traffic congestion on the highway. Many drivers see the lane next to them moving faster than the one they are in and will switch from lane to lane to try to go more quickly. Studies show that lane-switchers worsen traffic jams. Motorists will become more frustrated when the lane they’ve joined ends up moving more slowly than the one they came from. In a retail setting, jockeying will decrease the wait time for the starting line while adding to the wait time at the new line. Just as in traffic, shoppers are often bad at judging how fast a queue will move, and sometimes wait longer than if they stayed in place.
- Balking: After seeing a long line, some customers will choose not to wait at all. There are two leading causes of balking. First, the queue may be so long there is no place to wait. Second, the customer may anticipate an unpleasant wait time and choose not to buy anything at all. Balking costs your store revenue through reduced conversions. Among your balkers are a group of people who have done all the work to find the items and decide to buy them only to reverse course before making it to the register. As a secondary issue, balkers may be more likely to put merchandise back incorrectly and create more work for your team. Unlike lines in amusement parks, which promise excitement and thrill at the end, stores must find ways to convince people to wait.
- Reneging: Similar to balking, some customers will get in line and then, after waiting for a few minutes, decide to leave. Line abandonment leads to lost conversions just feet before the checkout. Finding ways to streamline the checkout process to shave the waiting time by only a few minutes can prevent this profit-eating behavior. Ensuring the lines move quickly and appear efficient, even when long, can help avoid reneging.
Ways to Manage Customer Service and Checkout Queues
A fast-moving queue prevents many of the revenue drains created by long lines. The right system will improve the organization of your queues and how your staff handles them. For example, one effective process would involve a cashier calling over patrons from a long line. The key to superior queuing is to reduce both actual and perceived wait time. Reducing wait times saves everyone time and increases store productivity. Lowering perceived wait times boosts customer satisfaction, even if the wait doesn’t change.
Types of Customer Queues
The good news is that the way you design your line can impact the wait time and how it feels to customers. Here are some strategies for your customer queuing system:
- Serpentine line: The serpentine line is deceptively long and moves much faster than parallel checkout lanes found at many supermarkets. Instead, a set of checkout stations sit in front of a long, snaking line. These lines are often managed with a set of belt stanchions or shelves to create a space-saving S shape. Whichever register completes a transaction first calls the next customer to checkout. This system eliminates a holdup at one register from affecting other customers, reducing wait times overall. Many retailers find the serpentine line design speeds up their queues and helps customers leave happy. It also operates on the principle of first-come, first-served. The model appeals to people’s psychological desire for fairness. Even if wait times are only slightly shorter, shoppers recognize that they are being served in the order in which they came. They also have no shorter, faster line to compare their experience to. The one downside to this model is that customers may balk at the size of the line.
- Prioritized lines: Many customer queues serve certain customers over others to improve wait times. A typical example of this is during airline boarding procedures. Splitting passengers into groups shortens the perceived wait times since each line is shorter. It also allows VIP customers, those who spend more money with the airline, to be served more quickly. While the prioritization strategy doesn’t have the same applications in retail, the express lane serves a similar purpose. However, express lanes are better at reducing perceived wait times than actual wait times. One study found that it takes cashiers a fixed 41 seconds to greet each customer and receive payments. Then, it’s only an additional three seconds per item. So, an express lane with 10 people will likely move slower than another lane with three people.
- Sign-in to wait online: An innovation in the world of retail is appointment-based checkouts. Instead of asking customers to physically stand in line, they sign in at a kiosk or through their mobile phones. They are then given a checkout time or a selection of times to choose from. So, instead of holding their spot in line, customers can browse freely. A kiosk at the front door lets customers “wait in line” while they shop. An app can even allow your customers to sign up for a checkout slot before leaving the house. It’s like a take-a-number system for the digital world. A few downsides to this method is that with a set checkout time, customers may be discouraged from shopping at a leisurely pace and become less likely to add impulse buys to their carts. On the other hand, if the wait time is a bit longer, they may end up doing more of this browsing.
- No line: Some retailers have decided to end the checkout line altogether. Retail’s no-line pioneers have associates checkout customers through portable card readers throughout the store. Now, retailers of all stripes can try removing the queue. Through a card-enabled mobile app, customers can scan barcodes on their phones as they go. When they’re ready to checkout, shoppers head toward a special kiosk where they can bag items and have their purchase verified.
Tricks to Improve Wait Times
Of course, redesigning your checkout line isn’t the only way to manage customer queues. Here are a few tactics any grocer or retailer can use to speed up checkout lines:
- Collect wait time analytics: The first step to improving wait times is understanding how long they are. Tracking how wait times respond to variables is crucial for strategic decision-making. Line wait time is complicated and dependent on many factors. A hold up at the register, like a declined credit card or a rewards card signup, is one factor. Basket sizes, the speed of the checkout clerk and the number of customers in line each play their parts.
- Display wait times: Once you can track wait times, consider posting them on a dynamic display. Knowing how long the wait will be makes it feel shorter. It also reduces waiting anxiety since customers can tell just how long they will stand in line. The key to improving customer service is the line is to overestimate the time frames. If customers hear that the line will take five minutes and it ends up taking 10, they’re likely to become annoyed. On the flip side, if an estimated 15 minutes turns into seven, customers feel they’ve saved time.
- Try in-line entertainment: Time spent idle will almost always feel longer than time spent engaged in a task. It’s why half an hour of browsing feels quick and half an hour waiting in line is intolerable. Stores combat this through the careful selection of add-on items at the register. Between enticing tabloids and an array of quick bites and knick-knacks, there’s plenty to grab shoppers’ eyes while they wait. Retailers can also place screens above the register, displaying dynamic, attention-grabbing ads. Free Wi-Fi can also help shoppers entertain themselves with their own devices while waiting in the queue.
- Improve processes and training: The way your staff handles checkouts can also impact speeds. Ensure cashiers master all the functions on their register. Baggers should know the fastest methods for consolidating items. You can also reduce wait times by helping cashiers need fewer manager approvals for everyday scenarios.
- Use modern technology: A broken scanner or a slow receipt printer can add time to every sale. Complicated self-checkout machines force every customer to master a slow, unintuitive device. The latest technology will be more accessible for both staff and customers and process transactions quickly. Further, modern point-of-sale technology will have time-saving features like contactless pay.
How to Use People Counters to Improve Customer Queues
People counters take an exact count of stores’ total daily visitors and reveal peak shopping times. Within the store, they root out bottlenecks and underused areas while mapping customer journeys. People counters are also crucial tools to control queues.
Measure Conversion Rates
First, you can use people counting systems to track total visitors against sales. Understanding your conversion rate also reveals how many people skipped the register. Then, footfall data helps you learn what sends customers out the door. In-depth customer research through surveys and other methods may reveal the problem is unavailability or poor selection. If beelines for the exit stem from the checkout waiting area, you then know the problem is inconvenient queues.
Resolve Wait Times With Occupancy Data
Once you identify customer queuing as a significant pain point for your patrons, you can use people counting to resolve it. The first way is through staff optimization. If you install a people counter, patterns about your busiest hours will soon emerge. These peak hours often don’t line up with what we predict. Many assume their peak hours align with the end of the workday when traffic sometimes spikes during lunch breaks.
Once you establish these weekly patterns, you can assign registers accordingly. By keeping the checkout lanes staffed during your expected rushes, you’re prepared to serve an influx of customers. Knowing your real traffic patterns prevents you from understaffing because you think it will be slow. As an added benefit, you don’t have to staff as many registers during your off-hours, saving on labor and allowing you to use your team more effectively.
Besides your historical occupancy data, you can also leverage live reporting to adjust your checkout staffing. The average amount of time spent per shopping trip is roughly 45 minutes, according to Pew Research. If you have a real-time capacity counting system, you find out about spikes in your current occupancy about 30 minutes before those customers get in line to check out. While your weekly analytics should cover the usual rushes, live occupancy counting can help you get ahead of unexpected ones to prevent long waits.
Customer Queuing and Social Distancing
The start of the COVID-19 outbreak marked a new era for grocery stores, suddenly deemed essential businesses. Stores struggled to keep up with the demand for cleaning products, soap and other essentials as customers stocked up to weather quarantines with unknown ends. Meanwhile, nonessential retailers closed their doors in wait of state reopening guidance. Stores must learn to balance social distancing with customer service. Inside the stores that remain open or that have reopened, changes in layout could mean one-way foot traffic. Floor markers line the walkways in 6-foot increments.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, customers are stuck in a new type of queue — the line to get in the store. As grocery and retail stores must limit capacity to 50% or even lower, lines form outside the doors as shoppers flock to buy essentials. That extra line is another bump in the customer journey, where long waits translate into poor experience. It’s a second tollgate where you face balkers and renegers. Some crowdsourced apps let shoppers check the wait times for various retailers. So, a long entry queue could be sending customers who never even see the line to your competition.
Social Distancing and the Checkout Queue
To maintain capacity, the next customer in line must wait until another shopper exits. The “one in, one out” system means the checkout line’s speed reflects the pace of the entry line pretty closely. So, boosting speeds at checkout will naturally improve the experience at the entrance.
One potential hangup is that 59% of consumers report using self-checkout more to protect themselves. These systems need to be cleaned often and can be slower if the technology confuses people. Even if your store uses parallel registers, a socially-distanced serpentine line for self-checkout can help. Also, keeping plenty of staff available to deal with technical issues can speed things up.
Other measures, like curbside pickup, can help you maintain correct social distancing by limiting the number of customers who enter the store. It works similarly to a digital sign-in system, where customers can book a time to have their items brought out to them. The waiting happens from the comfort of home rather than in a line.
Social Distancing and the Entrance Queue
Using a people counting system for capacity limits can be useful at your front doors. For example, the Traf-Sys SafeEntry software will display your current capacity limit and the number of “safe to admit” patrons. Meanwhile, the easy-to-install SafeCount system counts people entering through all doorways with precision and accuracy. Employees know who to allow inside, and customers receive clear communication in-queue. This system can ease customers and help them gauge how long they’ll need to wait.
The software also has the benefit of calculating your store’s busiest times. Since 66% of consumers say they now prefer to shop at slower times, information on your peaks is vital. Displaying this data in-store can be another service you provide to your customers. Further, posting your quietest hours can encourage more of your shoppers to visit then. By funneling more of your customers into your uncongested shopping times, you’ll keep capacity down at your busier times. It helps you maintain social distancing in-store while serving more of your customers quickly.
Use Traf-Sys People Counters to Improve Your Customer Queues
Traf-Sys people counting systems have helped retailers like you improve their queuing experience at the checkout with better footfall and occupancy counting. Our SafeEntry and SafeCount occupancy counting system provides a live report of your current occupancy, configured for every entrance. While SafeEntry provides an employee- and customer-facing interface for your live capacity count, SafeCount uses powerful overhead sensors to track customers entering and exiting. Accurate data helps you manage your entrance lines by letting in as many people as your limited capacity will allow, keeping customers happier and feeling safer.
For more information about our SafeEntry and SafeCount system or any of our customer counting solutions, request your free quote today.