Queue management, and its impact on customer preference (and profitability)

Nobody enjoys a queue. At best, we regard them as a necessary evil. At worst, they can be the difference between a sale and an abandoned shopping basket (with customer dissatisfaction guaranteed). In addition to my obvious professional interest, studying how retailers manage the queues in their stores has become something of a personal obsession!

When in-store queues can be one of the most negatively impactful aspects of the retail customer experience (and have a significant impact on sales, as research has previously pointed out) it’s surprising that more retailers aren’t using technology to better monitor and manage the queues in their stores, and in doing so enhance the retail customer experience.

I have three local stores where I can pick up groceries. All have slightly different propositions (and associated store designs): one is a no frills, ‘stack them high, sell them cheap’ type of place; the second more upmarket with lots of fresh food and an in-store bakery; and the third somewhere between the two with a more limited but specialist range than can throw up surprises and cooking inspiration. In addition to their different offerings, each has its own approach to the check-out area and the management of the inevitable queues. And I’ve found that my choice of store is directly influenced by the experience of the queue (and my willingness to endure it, balanced against what I want or need to buy).

The upmarket store gives me control with a self-scanning device, allowing me to keep an eye on the (generally higher) prices as I shop. The deli area can be chaotic – so I sometimes skip that – and when presented with the choice of manned and self-check-out I’ll always head to the latter as there always seems to be a small queue for the manned check-outs. Overall, it’s a fairly positive experience, which it needs to be given the premium pricing, but I can’t help thinking I’d buy more at the deli if they queue there was better managed.

The low-price store might have ambitions to be cheap and cheerful, but chaotic would be a better word to describe the queue. With shelves packed with merchandise positioned too close to the tills, it’s impossible to see where queues should start and end – which immediately raises tensions amongst customers – and queuing can take a while. Seemingly in the knowledge of that, as ‘entertainment’ the store has TVs running the latest promotions. But who’s about to give up their place in the queue to run off and grab one of the featured products? I never have, for sure. But when I have the time, or need to pick up a load of essentials, then the cost saving can make the queue worthwhile.

My third option is, like its overall proposition, somewhere between the two. There’s no self-check-out, but staff seem more aware of the length of queues and are proactive in calling for another till or two to be opened when needed. While that gives a nice sense of engaged, hands-on staff, it’s a manual approach that sometimes results in a breakdown in communication or understaffing that causes the queues to build up and for me to wish I’d gone somewhere else.

All three stores would benefit from a more effective use of technology in their queue management system. Such systems monitor queue behavior in real-time, and provide data on how many people are standing in a queue per period, and for how long. Such insight can be used to predict how many cashiers and open tills are required to prevent the formation of queues, optimizing customer service at the check-out. And while the check-out area of your store might not be the most glamorous, it’s becoming one of the most critical in terms of sales conversion.

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