How's your queue? Single lines and diversions improve the customer experience


Back in November, I attended a theatre manager conference for Reading Theatres in New York, where several of their vendors gave presentations. I always enjoy this type of event. At a trade show, you really only get the quick pitch. So when a vendor gets to talk about their product, you can learn a thing or two. And one of the things I learned about was queueing.

I haven’t really thought very much about queueing, although I engage in this activity almost every day. I have never written an article about this subject, and I have been writing for many years! There are several aspects of queueing that make people uncomfortable, beginning with social justice. Did you get in the line that just doesn’t budge? Did the last five people who walked up after you get served before you did? Can you picture your favorite comedian with pages of material on this experience? This is a big subject, across all walks of life. It is also a big part of the theatre-going experience, including the concession stand, and worth a review of our practices.

Many studies have been done on the psychology of queueing, and one of the most respected experts is Richard Larson. He began studying and writing on the subject at MIT in the ’80s and really dove into what makes a good or bad queue, how people respond to queues, and what changes their experience within one. He focused on social justice, the environment surrounding the queue, and moving from linear queues to non-linear queues. Taking a look at these three things in the theatre, how do our queues affect our guests and can we do a better job?

When queues involve multiple lines that move at different speeds, customers who skip in and out of queues, and opportunities lost, people feel this experience as social injustice. Larson’s research found that people get the most frustrated with queues for the social injustices that occur within them more than the time associated with them. Feeling like there is no rhyme or reason to how you get up to the front of a line or move in relation to everyone else around you is extremely unnerving to most people. Being made to wait in lines that defy the age-old “First come, first served” principle makes it difficult for people to interact civilly with each other. Social justice issues should not be taken lightly; they can create enough negativity to keep people from queueing up.

With most concession lines in theatres, this usually occurs. Can we do a better job? The best solution to multiple linear lines that move at different random speeds is to combine them into one queue that feeds up to the cash registers from a single point. This is what occurs at many retail stores and most airport lines. For the general population, getting into a single line that serves the “First come, first served” principle is welcome. It can also speed transactions and even increase sales.

The company at the Reading Theatre conference that sparked this discussion is AICP, which works with several large retailers who use their “Sway Jack” stanchions. These retailers all experienced higher sales when they converted to a single-line queue. They also experienced faster transaction speed on a per-customer average.

This is partly due to the fact that fewer customers leave the queue and more customers are willing to enter it, knowing they will not be treated unfairly. But it is also related to environment. Larson also found that entertaining the customer while in line lessens the “feel” of the time spent there. David Meister has also conducted studies on this subject and found that “occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time.” It’s also not consistent; the last few minutes of a wait bear more importance than the other time because the point of touch is so close.

To reduce the stress of queueing up, entertain the guests you have captured. We can certainly do this in our business since we have lots of great movie trailers to play. But we can still do better.

We can actually up-sell the customer while he or she is in line. Making the menu boards easy to see, with movement and suggestions, is critical. But we also sell lots of easy-to-touch candy items. I was in a Marshall’s store twice this past month and both times I bought an item from the merchandise offered along the queue line. Theft is always mentioned at this point, but a single line with only one way out is harder for someone to steal from. Entertaining and up-selling the customer as they go through a single entry and exit-point queue might help bring some new customers into the concession line. Some physical layouts might make this challenging, but it’s one option worth looking at.

The issues detailed briefly here such as anxiety, unknown wait times, social justice, and the feeling of time not being spent in a valuable way should never be things that we want our customer to experience in a theatre. We cover this subject almost every month in this column: It’s all about the experience. So why would we ever want to project a negative experience on our customers at the beginning of their visit or at any queue point in our theatre, be it box office, concession, café or bar? Maybe this is a good time to take a fresh look at your queue.

E-mail your comments to Anita Watts at