Friday Rant: Spending Time in the Holiday Queue

We all know the holiday season that's upon us is not really about spending gobs of money. But whether or not we choose to participate in the retail frenzy, the season is definitely characterized by spending a lot more time than we'd like performing routine tasks among the masses.

Surprisingly, there are a few strategies to more efficiently negotiate the inevitable queues we encounter almost everywhere.

For starters, let's look at the base issue of frustration and how to ameliorate the utter exasperation we feel when -- of all things -- we must wait and waste precious time to simply pay a vendor for that which we have decided to buy. This reminds me of my most favorite and brilliant Wharton professor, Russel Ackoff, whose systems thinking was a mile "outside the box" before the cliché was even coined. Russ' creative genius fills volumes but one of his favorite projects involved helping a client avoid the perceived expense of installing an additional elevator or having to relocate a rapidly growing enterprise. The bourgeoning staff was mutinous over the office building elevator queue before the days of cell phones and PCs. Russ solved the problem almost overnight. Floor to ceiling mirrors were installed at all stations and the problem went away.

The lesson here might be to create one's own mirror when waiting in line. Kick back and observe the behavior around you. It may not be a scientific sample of human behavior but it's bound to be more interesting than just stewing. Learning more about peoples everyday responses to stress can be humorous, and at minimum enable a counting of personal blessings / coping ability – if you will – and even enhance your arsenal of people skills.

More pragmatically, yesterday's WSJ offers some very interesting analysis on queuing theory as well as differences in perception among men and women. For instance, "Men are more likely to give up on a line than women. Men start to inflate the amount of time they believe they have waited in line after just two minutes. With women, it's three minutes." And perhaps most revealing, our competitive and independent nature causes perception failure when it comes to choosing the best line. Most people prefer to choose among single lines despite the fact that "A single-file line leading to three cashiers is about three times faster than having one line for each cashier." And mimicking Russ Ackoff's model, the Journal claims that "Mall retailers are copying grocery stores with items like tiny stuffed animals and gift cards next to lines to distract from the wait."

While it's little wonder that the efficiencies of on-line retailing continue to gain market share, we will all – at some point this holiday season – encounter masses of fellow shoppers in a number of venues. Try to relax and be creative. And if you're a guy, go shopping with a woman -- you'll have more fun.

- William Busch

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