The Science of Waiting Lines: Understanding Customer Behavior

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June 19, 2024

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Managing queues in quick service businesses effectively requires understanding customer behavior and expectations while in queues. Have you ever wondered why some lines feel longer than others, even when the actual wait time is the same? Or why do customers seem happier in one queue over another? We’ll tackle these questions as we shed light on the factors influencing customer perceptions and behaviors and tips to help businesses manage queues better.

Unique Challenges in Fast Service Settings

Every second matters in fast-food spots, drive-thrus, and grocery lines. Effective queue management is crucial in environments with rapid customer turnover and individuals who value their time immensely. In such settings, the ability to manage waiting lines can have a decisive impact on the customer experience and, by extension, the business’s success.

During peak hours, quick-service restaurants face increased waiting times. These prolonged waits can test customer patience and adversely affect the waiting experience. To add to the complexity, accurately predicting the estimated wait time is often difficult due to fluctuating customer volumes and varying order complexities.

Customers, particularly those short on time, may perceive even short delays as finite waits—specific, palpable periods they must endure before reaching the front of the line. For individuals who hate wasting time, these moments can feel particularly frustrating.

In-process waits add an extra layer to the challenge. When customers are actively engaged in the ordering and payment process, this period can also contribute to overall queue length, especially when not managed effectively.

Furthermore, addressing the needs of individuals and “group waiting” simultaneously during rush periods requires careful consideration. Groups can slow down the pace for everyone, turning what should be a swift service interaction into a test of patience.

Importance of Queue Management

When customers expect quick and efficient service, long wait times can lead to frustration and dissatisfaction. According to a study, as each minute of perceived wait time increased, customer satisfaction decreased by nearly 19%. This highlights why businesses must pay attention to queues to improve customer experience.

High Customer Turnover and Time Sensitivity

Quick-service businesses experience high customer churn rates, particularly during peak hours. One study revealed that customers spend as much as 5.4 minutes waiting in a queue during peak lunch hours before placing their orders at fast-food restaurants. Also, time-sensitive customers, such as those on lunch breaks or in a rush, are less likely to put up with uncertain waits, making it essential for businesses to optimize queue management.

Customer Expectations and Perceptions

The psychology of waiting plays a significant role in shaping customer expectations and perceptions. Perceived wait time, social interactions, and emotional responses influence how customers experience waiting. For example, individuals who find unexplained waits ‘unacceptable’ have a significantly lower mood and view the service as being of lower quality.

Social and Emotional Aspects of Waiting

Customers experience a range of social and emotional reactions while waiting in line. For some, solo waits feel longer than in groups. People frequently compare their waiting time to others, leading to perceptions of unfair waits, which can stir up frustration. The act of switching lines or positions, known as jockeying, is a typical response as individuals attempt to reduce their wait time. However, this behavior often increases unexplained feelings of annoyance and restlessness, especially when the reason for the delay is not communicated.

Wait Times and the Customer Experience

There’s a strong link between wait time and customer satisfaction, with extended periods of waiting typically resulting in lower satisfaction levels and a diminished experience. Wait times deeply influence customer experience across all quick service sectors. When customers wait longer than expected, satisfaction plunders. The pre-service wait—the time spent queuing before receiving attention—often sets the tone for how customers judge their entire experience.

Statistics paint a vivid picture: a customer’s perception of waiting time overshadows the time elapsed. This is why the urgency for swift service becomes apparent even in channels like phone support, where over 60% of customers are unwilling to wait more than two minutes. If left unaddressed, nearly a third may abandon the interaction entirely.

Quick service businesses must manage and set realistic expectations for waiting times to promote positive experiences.

Queue Structures in Fast Services

Queuing systems can impact service speed and efficiency. Single-line queues, where customers wait in one line and are served by the next available cashier, are often perceived as fairer and more efficient. In contrast, multiple-line queues, where customers choose a line and wait for a specific cashier, can lead to uneven wait times and feelings of unfairness. Self-service kiosks and mobile ordering are some of the solutions that can ease the ordering process and reduce wait times.

Customer preferences for different queue structures vary based on their perceptions of efficiency and fairness. Single-line queues are generally preferred as they reduce the likelihood of jockeying and ensure a more orderly process. Self-service kiosks and mobile ordering options are best suited to tech-savvy customers who prefer a faster and more convenient ordering experience. 

Benefits of Effective Queue Management

Effective queue management can lead to numerous business benefits, including increased throughput and customer retention. By minimizing wait times, businesses can serve more customers in a shorter period, leading to higher sales and revenue. A study involving over 1,900 consumers revealed a connection between speed of service and key customer indicators such as satisfaction, loyalty, likelihood to make a purchase, and propensity to recommend the business to others.

Minimizing Negative Impacts of Waiting

Minimizing the negative impacts of waiting is essential for quick service businesses to maintain sales and customer loyalty. By ensuring shorter, more equitable waits, customers are more likely to have positive impressions and spread the word about their experiences. This can lead to repeat visits and attract new customers. Customers who don’t spend too much time in a waiting room or who arrive early and are served promptly always leave satisfied. Implementing effective queue management methods can reduce the adverse effects of long wait times on both sales and customer loyalty.

Strategic Queue Management

Strategic queue management involves understanding customer behavior and preferences to optimize queues. With real-time data and insights, businesses can identify peak hours, adjust staffing levels, and implement technologies that enhance the customer experience.

Innovative Queue Technologies

Technology has revamped queue management in quick-service environments. Digital tools such as electronic queue systems, mobile ordering, and self-service kiosks enable businesses to manage queue lengths more effectively. These tools enable real-time monitoring and allow customers to place orders and make payments without waiting in line for too long, enhancing operational efficiency.

Improving the Waiting Experience

Refining operational workflows helps businesses provide smoother, quicker service. Mobile ordering is a case in point. It allows customers to place orders beforehand and collect them at a predetermined time, thus reducing the necessity of waiting in line. Electronic queue systems provide customers with estimated wait times and notifications.

Practical Waiting Line Strategies

Improving customer perceptions of queues center around reducing the stress and uncertainty of waiting. Here’s how businesses can address this:

  1. Communicate Wait Times: Forecast estimated waiting time and keep customers updated to help them gauge how much time they’ll spend in line.
  2. Engage Customers in Line: Properly trained employees can interact with those waiting, clarifying queries and maintaining a positive atmosphere.
  3. Pleasant Environment: Making the waiting area comfortable and engaging with amenities can shift customers’ focus away from the clock.
  4. Distractions: Offer reading materials, Wi-Fi, or screens to make waiting feel quicker.
  5. Fairness in Service: Visible queue systems ensure everyone knows their turn is coming, encouraging a sense of fairness.


Nobody enjoys the sinking feeling that they might be stuck in the wrong line, especially when it seems to stretch their perceived waiting time. For businesses, managing queues effectively is crucial; it’s a message to the customers that their time is respected. An intelligent queue design can reduce the actual and perceived waiting times, making even a busy day seem like a breeze for people waiting.

A well-managed wait doesn’t just happen. It results from thoughtful planning and technology that works quietly behind the scenes. Quality service earns appreciation and encourages repeat visits. Moreover, when waits seem shorter, customers leave with a positive, lasting impression of the business.