Are lines good, or bad for business?

If you're running a bar, tavern, pub, nightclub, or restaurant, you probably know what it's like for your business to be on a wait, and at times have a line outside just to get in.
August 13, 2022

Are lines good, or bad for business?


We designed this article to help businesses better understand how a customer's psychology affects their willingness to wait for food and drinks, when they will do it, when they won't, and most importantly -when it matters.  If you're interested in making your establishment more efficient and providing excellent customer service, then this article will help you answer questions about queue lines, waitlists and more.

If you're running a bar, tavern, pub, nightclub, or restaurant, you probably know what it's like for your business to be on a wait, and at times have a line outside just to get in. Lines are common, especially at popular establishments that reach their maximum occupancy or capacity, and managing lines and queues are a regular part of the restaurant, bar and nightclub business.  

To get a handle on managing the wait at your business, you may ask yourself questions from time-to-time such as, "does a line increase business? " Or, "how can I reduce customer wait times?"  If your establishment is always at capacity, and lines are unavoidable, you might be asking how to speed up customer service, reduce bottlenecks, and what solutions are out there to help this process and make sure you're not turning away potential customers.

You'll find answers to these questions an more below, where we discuss why customers wait in the first place, how to make their wait 'feel' shorter, and what works, and what doesn't, when it comes to waitlist management.


"Bleep bloop," that's the sound (I think) of my rent payment being debited from my bank account on the first of the month and transmitted, automatically, with no check to mail or confirmation message to click, to some management company in middle America, through a processing company somewhere in Dallas, and then finally to the account of my landlord. In 2020, now more than ever, we're used to the instant, we expect it, from noodles to justice, we live in a time where waiting is a sign of inefficiency, or worse, of poor customer service.  A great example of this is at popular bars and nightclubs, which are notoriously busy on Friday and Saturday nights. Customers that arrive at these times may have to wait in a long line just to get inside. Others may wait for several hours, only to be told that, in fact, they won’t be able to get inside after all.

The time spent waiting in line, and the way that people feel when they do so, has a large impact on individual businesses and the economy. As Benjamin Franklin once quipped, "time is money," and the time that customers spend standing in line costs a lot of money once you add it all up.  According to the 1975 book Queuing and Waiting by American sociologist Barry Schwartz, the population of the Soviet Union wasted approximately 30 billion hours a year waiting while out shopping. In a more recent study, MIT professor Richard Larson estimates that on average, Americans spend about 1-2 years of their lives just waiting in line for things (including traffic, the bank, restaurants, and more). When a person helplessly waits in line, they’re not free to interact with the economy. In this way, the way in which businesses manage queues translates to billions of dollars in gains and losses in consumer spending.

Outside the bar, tavern or night-club, long lines and an unpleasant wait can frustrate customers causing them to leave, what researchers call “reneging”, or to skip the venue entirely, referred to as “balking.” In both cases a potential customer will take their business to a venue that’s better prepared to handle their business. Worse yet, that customer may be frustrated enough to never return, to post a negative review online, or discourage friends from visiting in the future.


To address the problems of reneging from, and balking at, queue lines, academics studying operations management have used queuing theory, the mathematical study of waiting in lines (yes, that's a discipline). Starting with a European sociologist A.K. Erlang in the early 20 thcentury, scientists constructed mathematical models to predict wait times, and developed theories and processes for how to reduce them, in particular by  shortening queue lines. This research suggests that a busy tavern that wants to retain customers should take steps to shorten lines and remove bottlenecks, such as hiring more doorpersons, hosts and bartenders, and reducing the number of steps needed to process a customer request. Much of the early queuing theory was focused in this fashion on identifying the operational changes that would result in more efficient waits. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that these researchers began to realize that efficiency of queues wasn’t the only factor that influenced people’s experience while waiting.

Around 1950, a building manager of a Manhattan high-rise was hit with hundreds of complaints regarding the time people waited for the building’s elevators during peak hours—when people arrived in the morning, went to lunch, and left at the end of the day. The building’s engineers looked into the possibility of speeding up the elevator service, but determined that to be impossible. Someone then suggested that perhaps the problem wasn’t the wait times, but that those who were waiting were getting bored just standing in line with nothing to do. Not wanting to lose their tenants, the building manager installed floor-to-ceiling mirrors around the elevators that enabled waiting passengers to look at themselves and others while they waited for the lift. Complaints dropped to zero.  

Mounting empirical evidence, such as the installation of mirrors outside of elevators changing the perception of people’s waiting experience, indicated to sociologists that there are far more subtler factors than the time spent waiting that contribute to a positive or negative experience, including ideas of fairness, the management of expectations, and the subjective (and inaccurate) way that humans perceive time.  As many studies have since pointed out, it’s often the way that people feel about their time in line that is more important than the duration they spent waiting.


Two powerful tools that have been used effectively to influence the perception of waiting customers are the use of distraction (engaging the customer in an alternate activity so the wait seems faster), and the effective management of expectations (providing the customer with information about how long they will be waiting). The former, at times taking the form of mirrors outside the elevator, magazines in the waiting room, or televisions in the queue line, is a simple and effective method for making waiting more pleasurable. According to Larson, Disney (the happiest place on earth) is probably the most successful example in the history of queue management to date, demonstrating steadily increasing visitor counts year-over-year despite perpetually increasing wait times for their attractions. Disney has seemingly mastered the art of queue creation and the use of distraction, setting up vivid, engaging and entertaining queues that build anticipation for the attraction, and convince parents to stand in line for an hour to enjoy a 4-minute ride.

The second tool that Disney utilizes to influence the perception of the wait is to provide information about waiting expectations, usually at the entrance to an attraction. Additionally, Disney has a policy to over-estimate the wait time so that customers that were quoted a wait of one hour for Space Mountain are pleasantly surprised when they only had to wait 45 minutes. Studies have shown that providing information about the wait goes a long way to reducing anxiety and stress from uncertainty, common problems that are associated with waiting in line. Thus, as the Disney example demonstrates, consumers that have information about what to expect from a queue, are less likely to “balk” or “renege.”


Maybe the most basic question about queuing theory is to ask, “why do people wait in line?” As it turns out, lines, even long ones, aren’t necessarily all bad. As many researchers point out, lines contain and convey information, they point to something worth waiting for at the end, something that “people in the know” recognize and are willing to wait for.

The willingness of people to wait for what they want is especially familiar in the restaurant and bar industry. It’s not uncommon for the best burrito place in town to have a line of gourmands that wraps around the building. And, popular nightspots in big cities are famous for their excruciating waits—the longer the line gets, the more interest people seem to have to go there, making the lines even longer. Popular and trendy eateries with new imported dishes can have a cult following, whether it’s bacon-topped donuts in Boston, or Ramen burgers in New York, people vote with their feet and will line up for they want.

But why are people willing to wait in such long lines? One explanation is psychology – when something is perceived to be scarce, it’s often perceived to be more valuable. Thus, people will wait in line for a good or service because they perceive it to be of superior quality, and “worth the wait.” Additionally, studies show that people tend to learn from the behavior of others, drawing conclusions and perceptions of value that are based on others’ experiences or portrayals of a good or service.  One example is when a product is new, advertising often attempts to pair marketing with experts, to portray the product or service as valuable to those experts and thus valuable to the average consumer. When it comes to lines, the experts are those higher in the queue, and as such people will often join a line because others, those that are “in the know” are queuing.  


The psycology of “observing people in the know” is especially prevalent in the restaurant industry. Seeing a line, or customers in an establishment, often conveys information about quality and desirability. And indeed, research shows that people tend to avoid establishments with no lines or customers, despite the potential to miss out on experiencing high-quality products or services.

Nonetheless, it’s more complicated than the simple idea that if there is a line, people will stand in it. Studies have shown that there is a certain “critical length” for queue lines at which point they become alluring to consumers. Nightclubs are infamous for employing this psychological trick to generate “hype,” as many clubs have long been in the practice of artificially inflating their lines as a means of attracting curiosity. It’s not unusual to see dozens of people lined up to cross a velvet rope while the inside of the club is well below capacity, remaining functionally empty.

While there is little doubt among queuing theorists that a “critical length” exists at which point people become interested in joining a particular queue, studies have show that the factors that contribute to a queue reaching its “critical length” depend on more than just the length of the line. In particular, a number of external, difficult to control, conditions have been shown to influence consumer decision-making when it comes to queuing up, including, but not limited to, the type of establishment, the location, the weather, the clientele in the queue, the time of day, the surrounding businesses, the availability of parking, the expectations of service, and a host of other complex and interactive factors.  

Because of the complexities that determine when a particular queue becomes attractive to consumers, establishments that attempt to use queue length as a psychological tactic to draw in business, by artificially inflating their queue, are prone to mismanaging consumer expectations. Attempting to use psychology in this way to attract business (rather than creating a welcoming and comfortable environment inside) can certainly, in a bait-and-switch fashion, upturn the customers’ expectations upon entry. This can lead the customer to the conclusion that the wait was inefficient, unnecessary, and thus that the establishment has poor customer service. Add “supreme-excellence” prices for drinks and food, and whatever value perception created with the queue quickly goes out the window, and with it the chance to retain that customer. Surveys have shown that guests tend to remember the latter parts of their waiting experience more so than the initial minutes, and thus when a wait is perceived to be unfair or inefficient in the end, or even worse—a totally pointless rouse—guests tend to remember this to be an overall poor experience, and won’t return.  


Indeed, the corporate restaurant and bar industry has been acutely aware of the relationship between perceived wait and customer retention, and has for some time taken steps to analyze waitlist performance to improve customer service. Restaurant conglomerates such as Brinker International (owners of Chili’s and Maggianos) and Darden Restaurants (owners of Olive Garden, Yardhouse, and Capital Grille) prioritize questions about customers’ experience while waiting on their Customer Satisfaction Surveys (“CSS”), those long receipts that you might receive when dining at a restaurant inviting you to call a number or go online to describe your dinning experience in exchange for a discount on your next meal. In Olive Garden’s CSS for example, the first three questions are dedicated to understanding the customer’s experience before they even sit down to eat—the wait.

The first question in the survey reads:

     If you waited for dining room seating, approximately how long did you wait after arriving at the restaurant?

The next two questions deal with the accuracy of wait-time quotes:

     How accurate was the wait time the lobby staff quoted you?


     Approximately how much longer than the quoted time did you wait to be seated?

CSS from other restaurants are similar, demonstrating that corporate restaurants prioritize the understanding of how long their guests are waiting as well as the accuracy of quoted wait times. For these national brands, this information informs not only operational management but strategic decision making for the implementation of protocols or digital systems to affect guest experience.  


As discussed above, consumers tend to patronize businesses that appear busy over those that are empty. Moreover, when queue lines on the outside of establishments reach a "critical length" the line itself encourages more people to join in search of "something good at the end" because a line, like a businesses that's full of patrons, conveys a message of quality. So, that means that having a line is a good thing, right? Wrong! Even though lines can draw prospective patrons, studies show that customers remember the latter moments, rather than the beginning, of their wait, especially what happens once they get inside. That means that the customer service that they experience after their wait can override the influence of the wait itself. Thus, it's extremely important to convey to customers, through services or goods and customer service, that it was all "worth the wait." For businesses that fail to deliver on those expectations, severe consequences to customer retention and long-term revenue can be expected. Establishments that artificially inflate their exterior queues to illicit more customers, but maintain their interior facilities as functionally empty, run the risk of breaching their patrons' expectations for quality that is conveyed by the exterior line, thus discouraging them from returning in the future.

On the other hand, some venues like the notorious Studio 54 in New York, have lines wrapping around the building because the venue is operating at maximum occupancy (capacity). In this case, it's impossible to let any more patrons into the establishment without violating local fire-code and licensing regulations, thus a line is inevitable. Still, even when the venue isn't hurting for business, a line could be damaging customer retention when it's too long or inefficient. Guest will either 'balk' at lines that appear too long, or will 'renege' when wait times exceed expectations. In both cases, customers are left with the impression that the establishment isn't prepared to handle their business, or that the establishment doesn't really value their time. Thus, even when you're overflowing with business, a line can have negative consequences for customer acquisition or retention.  


Lines aren't great, especially if they are inefficient and waste your customers time. That's why reducing wait times and making queue lines more efficient is of primary concern for businesses that are interested in providing excellent customer service and driving repeat business. As discussed earlier, the use of Customer Satisfaction Surveys (CSS) is a good way for restaurant and table-service businesses to get information about waitlist performance. In the case of nightclubs and bars however, it's not as easy to get information about waiting efficiency. In either case however, some of the solutions for reducing wait times and increasing customer satisfaction are the same.

The first thing that should be considered when evaluating queues and wait times is to determine exactly what it is that patrons are queuing for, and focus massive attention on ensuring the quality of that experience. If you're a restaurant, that might be focusing on food and drink quality. If you're a night-club it might be on focusing on guest experience, customer service, and pricing. Paying attention to the primary business, and delivering on customer expectations goes a long way for building a business over the long-term.

Next, focus should fall on identifying and eliminating bottle-necks that affect the delivery of the primary draw for customers. To do this, managers should begin to study all of the internal business processes and determine where inefficiencies occur, develop solutions, implement new procedures, and evaluate outcomes.

Although slightly related to bottle-necking, staff optimization is also a key to successful reduction of wait-times. In the restaurant business, more staff is always better than fewer staff. Sometimes this means staffing more employees during busy hours, managing employee turnover or utilizing an automated system for clock-in and staffing.

Training is also extremely important when it comes to reducing wait times and making the wait as efficient as possible. Train, train and retrain your staff on the appropriate procedures for greeting guests, quoting wait times and managing queue lines. Look for ways to reduce wait times at choke-pokes by looking for procedure that can optimize customer flow-through.

Lastly, consider implementing an automated waitlist solution for the venue. Designed to work on desktop computers and mobile devices, wait management systems can handle everything from quoting wait times, the SMS paging of waiting guests, to-go ordering, staff communication, guest counters, and increasing table turns.

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