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The Longest Day: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the queue (passing mention of Sean)



The Longest Day: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the queue
STEPHEN McGINTY

THE queue, so evolutionary biologists believe, is 30,000 years long. If only our ancient ancestors knew what they were starting, they might have continued to club their way to the front.

For I cannot be alone, especially at this time of year, in approaching the check-out till with a heart swollen with Christmas cheer, only to feel it atrophy in my chest, then tumble into my stomach, at the sight of hundreds of fellow shoppers penned in like sheep and patiently waiting to be shorn of their cash.

The Christmas queue is like the common or garden queue, only cubed and drizzled with tinsel. The waiting time is longer, the impatience that boils beneath the surface rises in temperature and time, oh so precious time, appears to march past all the louder, as if in hobnail boots.

Yet the queue, like death and taxes, is unavoidable, even those billionaires with personal shoppers and private planes cannot now escape the tedium of the airport security line. So why not embrace what we cannot escape?

The question is: how can we learn to love the queue? After all, according to American research when you take in everything from grocery lines to congested roadways, we'll spend between two and three years in line. It might help to learn a little bit more about the cussedness of queues.

Although we first shuffled in line 30 millennia ago, the first academic research into the phenomenon was conducted in the early 20th century by Franz Johanssen and Agner Erlang, two mathematicians with the Copenhagen Telephone Company. Among their conclusions on queues was that tiny changes will have dramatic consequences.

This was later codified into a mathematical rule called the "Law of Inconvenience" which explains why some supermarket queues are longer than others. It was concluded that if a checkout person was 25 per cent slower than their colleagues, the ripple effect of each delay will mean his or her queue would be more than 50 per cent longer.

Oh, and that perception you have that the queues on either side are always moving swifter than your own queue?

Well, I'm afraid, they actually are. A study revealed that all queues have their fair share of random delays - problems with the till, slow customers - and as a result if there are three tills to choose from each customer has only a one chance in three of picking the swiftest moving one.

Suitably armed with this information and the conscious desire to maintain an inflated heart when faced with a queue longer than, well, just myself, I embarked on a mission to somehow accept that other people may wish to pay for goods or services at the same time as me.

In short this is How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Queue.

I began at Borders, which, in recent years, has introduced the corral system, where customers are fenced in by shelves of impulse buys such as the Little Book of Neds. In mid queue I introduce myself to Isobel, a retired teacher, who admits to being rather serene in queues. "Don't let it worry you," she advises. "I just people watch, look at those two pretty girls up ahead, then I just wonder what people do. I find it quite calming."

At just under four minutes to the till, it's hardly a strain on my patience, so I seek stiffer competition at Somerfield. "Excuse me, Sir, I'm writing an article on queuing for The Scotsman, can I ask your views?"

"Well, I don't really ..." said the chap in front, only to be interrupted by the check-out girl hollering: "Next". "Sorry, gotta go." I was processed in less than 45 seconds, which must be some sort of international record, worthy of the Golden Till.

I figured you could always rely on HMV for a reasonable queue and it was there I met Neil Stuart, 31, a fellow sufferer of queue rage, who has been known, in his time, to abandon a basket of shopping rather than wait his turn. "It drives me mad," he confessed. "Especially if there is some older person up front who just seems to take forever."

In the food court at Marks & Spencer I tested two new approaches. Armed with the information that, on average, we'll always pick the slowest queue, so why try, I choose one at random. Success, it is the slowest.

But to be frank, so far the queues had been a disappointment in that they had been insufficiently long and had failed to adequately test my new resolve. There was only one thing for it. I had to go to the post office.

And there I found it, a wonderful human snake, coiling around the store and containing customers who ranged from the content to the seriously disgruntled.

As I stood at the back, of what would be a 15 minute wait, I could feel a calmness come down, instead of brooding on those vital lost minutes, I relaxed, gazed around, attempted to start a conversation, noted the strange look on the girl's face and so quickly stopped.

Yet it didn't matter I had come to terms with what my ancestors had started, I was at one with the queue. It was almost a disappointment to reach the front. Almost.

Festive waiting game goes on at Scots tills

SHOPPERS at Britain's most popular supermarket face the longest queues, according to a new report which reveals the average times we spend waiting at Britain's stores.

Tesco was unveiled as Britain's tardiest, with customers kept waiting for an average of six minutes and five seconds. The swiftest tills, by comparison, were to be found at Somerfield who had a waiting time of just four minutes and 23 seconds.

The report, published by The Grocer the industry's trade journal, was compiled by secret shoppers who visited each of the "big six" stores and timed how long they had to wait before being served. It has resulted in red faces at Tesco, which this year introduced time-saving technology including faster scanners, more till points and extra assistants to help pack shopping and so speed up the queues.

It also reveals the extent to which British consumers have shed their traditional willingness to queue. The generation which stood in line for rations during and after the Second World War has given way to one raised on instant gratification.

Dr David Lewis, author of The Soul of the New Consumer: What We Buy and Why in the New Economy, said: "People are simply getting more impatient. In the past there was a sense that you had to queue, you had to wait to get something, that has changed. Today, even when ordering online, people will abandon their basket if there is a slight delay on the internet connection."

Dr Lewis, a corporate psychologist, believes some people are reluctant to queue as they believe that their wealth or position means they should not have too. "Queuing has become an indicator, to some people, of social status. Then you also get people who are just very impatient, they see the people in front of them not as a process but as an impediment, an obstacle."

The report found Somerfield customers wait an average of just four minutes and 23 seconds at the checkout. Waitrose had an average wait of four minutes 59 seconds, Sainsbury's had a five-minute-15-second wait, followed by Asda with five minutes and 35 seconds. Customers at Morrisons, which has adverts featuring the voice of Sean Bean telling customers all the "reasons" to shop there, makes shoppers wait exactly six minutes to pay. However, the worst offender was Tesco with an average wait of six minutes and five seconds per customer, according to The Grocer's annual study.

The Grocer report said: "Time spent queuing is a particularly contentious issue with shoppers and whether or not their bags are packed for them. Shoppers at Somerfield spend the least amount of time at checkout, just four minutes and 23 seconds on average while shoppers at Tesco, which has introduced cutting-edge infrared to speed up queuing times, spend the most."

Last night Ben Williams, a corporate psychologist based in Edinburgh, said companies took the matter of queues and delays seriously. "Companies don't like to see their customers delayed or upset and a lot of work will go into minimising these queues."

This article: http://news.scotsman.com/scotland.cfm?id=1886852006

Last updated: 20-Dec-06 00:35 GMT
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