Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

A guide to lineups: How to keep customers from getting cranky

We are often stuck in lineups, and businesses have to do their best to keep customers happy while they wait.


When you're stuck in a queue at the supermarket, coffee shop, airport or bank, inevitably your mind wanders and frustration builds. If you're smart, you might use that period to direct your attention to the waiting times in your own business, and consider whether the frustration that consumers experience is necessary.

An ideal guide to that contemplation would be Dilip Soman, a professor of marketing at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, who has spent the past 15 years conducting pioneering studies into the psychological aspects of queues.

It started when one of his colleagues from Hong Kong was stuck in a line and noticed that as the crowd behind her grew, she was less inclined to desert the queue. She remarked that as an economist, she knew that was deluded thinking – all that truly mattered was the people in front of her, and the pace of the line, not whether others were coming in later and waiting longer. But the phenomenon seemed worth investigating together, and Prof. Soman has continued that ever since.

Story continues below advertisement

Queues, he observes, are a temporary social system in which people share common objectives and seem bounded together, even if they might be to some extent competitors, hoping their line moves quicker than the next.

"People are always making judgments on the other people even though these are people you may never see again. But for 15 minutes they are your whole world," he notes. Indeed, people often share stories with their comrades-in-line, even though they are strangers.

Prof. Soman brought his research together in a recent article in Rotman Magazine stressing the importance for businesses to make sure that people who are waiting can feel they are making progress.

You might have experienced this yourself, for example when choosing between two airline routes. A flight from Toronto to Miami that stops in Montreal would seem less attractive than one stopping in Philadelphia – even if the two flights took the same amount of time. The stop in Philadelphia would seem like "positive progress" while Montreal would be seen as "negative progress," according to Prof. Soman's research.

He suggests the following guidelines to incorporate the notion of progress:

Queues and routes without stops are generally preferable to those that stall for a period of time. Steady progress beats periods of rapid progress, followed by no progress at all. If you give people a number to wait their turn, they will be just sitting passively and feeling that no progress is being made unless you display a big sign that shows the latest number being served.

Avoid reverse progress, where people seem to be moving in a direction contrary to their goal. Prof. Soman notes that most of the drive-throughs at Tim Hortons outlets start far from the building and the line then edges closer and closer to the building. In comparison, he found that at McDonalds outlets in the United States, customers often start close to the building, move away from it for awhile, and then return toward the building. That's a no-no: Make sure your queue doesn't snake away from the end point.

Story continues below advertisement

If reverse travel or stops are necessary, the later they occur in the experience, the better. Impediments early in the wait are more likely to upset or deter customers.

Prof. Soman also suggests that you ensure the customers get regular feedback on their progress. That keeps them from guesstimating wrongly. It also hews to research which found that runners on a course with a distance with each kilometre marked finished the course sooner than those on a course where the distance was marked every two kilometres.

Thus, fast-food outlets with drive-through windows could post periodic signs telling customers how long the average wait would be from where they are.

"The more pieces of feedback, the increased likelihood the person will stay in the queue," Prof. Soman said. "The human mind is a counting machine. We watch. We check mark."

When we are in a queue, we are sensitive to the need for justice – we want to be treated fairly compared with others. The general rule is first in/first out, and orderly lineups satisfy that desire, the first form of justice.

But Prof. Soman experienced a second form of justice when he was waiting a long time in an airport immigration line. The end was in sight when a large group arrived and three more lines were opened to handle the new arrivals. Although his waiting time didn't lengthen, a second aspect of justice was violated when others got through immigration without having to endure the long wait he did.

Story continues below advertisement

"People believe that everyone should wait for the same amount of time," he said. And although people become highly irritated in such situations, that irritation is fleeting. The bigger problem is first-order justice – preventing queue jumpers and keeping all lines moving at an equal pace.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

Report an error
About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at