Check Out, Check In or Drop Out – The Customer Experience in lines


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The psychology of waiting in lines bears interesting fruit. As a manager, even if you take logical steps to reduce customer wait time—it may not matter. So if practical, objective measures to reduce wait time don’t matter, then what does? How the wait is experienced.

Life is about the journey, not the destination…but what if you can only remember two components of an experience? Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman has argued this point, using what he calls the “Peak End Rule,” stating that we remember the peak ( pleasure or pain) and the conclusion of an experience (and nothing else).

When we apply Kahneman’s findings to waiting in lines we learn critical components to retail experience design. Waiting in line, an experience I discuss more in my last book, is a unique situation because it can offer an extremely positive peak or an extremely negative peak.

Some of applications of Kahneman’s point highlight the truths of “common sense.” The saying “a watched point never boils” teaches us that occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time. Recently, the Wall Street Journal featured an article about the Disney Company and others that showcases this point.

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Disney used Kahneman’s insight by training employees to entertain customers with Disney trivia while they are in line and pre-scanning their items. A second lesson is that people need recognition, and adding steps to the waiting process alters customer’s perception of time passage. To this end, Home Depot created a highly practical step that doubles as a greeting. Cashiers to stand at the front of their registers so customers can tell they are open. When lines are over three people, “Line busters” pre-scan the customer’s items, leaving them with a feeling of recognition that Home Depot values their time.

The takeaway lesson is that we perceive reality through a subjective lens. Instead of focusing on logistical details, the essence to a successful retail line experience is to design it for the human mind. Since people tend to put more weight on how fast or slow a line moved toward the end of their wait, look at the things you could to improve the emotional components of retail process design.


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