Is having a queue outside your store really a good thing? 

It's a sure sign of success. But what else does it say?
Sacha Zackariya
A queue outside a shop

I’ve worked in retail and hospitality my entire adult life, from fashion accessories, a Wafflemeister in Marble Arch, to thousands of currency exchange outlets and ATMs around the world. And I’ve talked to retailers high and low - from one-person stalls to the managers of ultra-luxury outlets. The verdict on the queue? It’s complicated. 

The pros of a queue 

We can start with the obvious: A queue is a free advertisement for the popularity of your product or service. 

The very fact of a queue means you have something people want enough to stand in line for. This will help you stand out from your competition and make a lot of casual shoppers interested in what exactly you are selling. It also gives a sense of urgency to potential customers: If they don’t line up and buy your product right now, the queue could get longer - or it could run out! And once they put the investment of time into queuing, they are likely to value whatever you sell them somewhat higher, as they have invested not just money in your product, but time too. 

In my experience, queues are generally better at generating buzz for hospitality outlets than retailers. A queue outside a boutique sandwich outlet, for example, is very understandable to customers - they can only make so many special lobster sandwiches or special Italian gelato cones, so the queue imparts authenticity. It also gives the opportunity for people to share the experience with those around them and even on social media. They can see visibly the types of people who are also attracted to the product and this can result in “social proof reinforcement” of their purchase decision. This works especially for hospitality outlets that are unique to an area. 

Today the embedded frenzy of queuing for limited edition sneaker “drops” or Shein products and other rare bits of streetwear certainly helps to add buzz. Customers desperate for a certain item can feel much more secure in their literal “place in line” than they might with an overloaded e-commerce platform. 

The cons of a queue 

Queues can turn off as many as they turn on. 

Tourist shoppers, the ones likely to drop hundreds of pounds in your store, are generally time-poor and cash-rich. They have spent a lot of money on their trip and if they waste it in a queue, they miss out on doing something else – in other words they have a much higher “opportunity cost” of being in line.  

And while queues entice a certain type of shopper - particularly the young and able-bodied - they will totally turn off anyone who doesn’t fancy standing for an unspecified amount of time in the cold or heat. Indeed, if some of your merchandise is only available to those willing to stand hours in queue, you are essentially telling anyone who can’t stand for that long to leave. 

A huge issue is also who is managing the queue – if it is a professional greeter who makes eye contact and smiles, that is very different to a gruff security guard who just closes the door between customers and makes you feel unwelcome.  Some retailers, including my company Prosegur ChangeGroup, are getting around this issue by using a virtual queuing system which uses SMS to notify customers when they can come back to the shop to be served – this enables people to walk around neighbouring areas or have a drink.  

The more common your product is; the more likely it is that a queue will turn customers off. 

Predicting queues and integrating them into your brand experience 

One of the big differences between a good queue and a bad queue is planning. 

If you know that a queue is likely, you can set yourself up for them and even make them enjoyable. 

Dishoom in London is famous for its queues, which can easily stretch on for over an hour. But Dishoom knows its queues are likely and integrates them into the brand experience, with a chatty staffer making you feel welcome and serving you free chai while you wait. But Dishoom knows it will basically always have a queue. How can you? 

A wide variety of software can plug into your existing technology and help to predict when queues are likely, and give you data on how many people abandon your queue. 

But you can also use some common sense and a bit of reading around. Good weather makes queues more likely, as do large events near your location. If you’re in a tourist hotspot, look around for advance data on travel bookings and international holidays such as Chinese New Year or Ramadan.  

There are also the factors that are within your control, like staffing levels. Can you adjust working patterns better to have more staff available at peak times, days and seasons? It can be better to give more time off and have a skeleton crew at quiet periods.  

This will let you plan for those queues and make sure they are as pleasant an experience as possible. Many luxury brands “elevate” the queue by offering hot chocolate or similar - but this does risk free-loaders who make your queue longer just for the freebie. 

Don’t plan and a queue can be a thoroughly unpleasant experience for your customers - and potentially a damaging one to your bottom line.  

A solution for some retailers: Reservations  

A great solution for some retailers is to copy what restaurants have been doing forever: Reservations. 

Sure, a customer who is only popping in to buy a £10 T-Shirt will probably not take the time to book an appointment for your store online. But if you are trying to cater for customers with a lot of money and not a lot of time, an appointment system could be just the ticket. This allows you to easily plan for the demand at your store, and provide a personalised luxury experience. It will require some upfront investment in terms of technology - do not under any circumstance rely on someone just emailing you - but this could easily pay off. 

In conclusion, a queue can be both a blessing and a curse. The key difference between a good one and a bad one is whether you have planned for it. Preparation can make a queue a pleasant experience people will actually talk about and post on social media. A lack of it can lose you tens of thousands in profits and impact your brand. 

Written by
Sacha Zackariya
Written by
February 23, 2024