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Monday, August 09, 2010

Waiting & the Retail Experience

Time Warped?

'Bending' Time or How to Improve Waiting in the Retail Experience

Have you ever spent time waiting? Perhaps at the bank, waiting for a teller or ATM, or at a grocery store checkout, perhaps even on the phone for service. Did you like it? I bet you put up with it, though, because you had no other choice.  It was simply part of that retail experience.

As negative as waiting is, it can be managed in such a way that the person waiting may enjoy the experience or, at least, not feel dissatisfied. Call it 'bending' time.

I was reminded of this when I read that US Emergency Department patients spent an average of 4 hours, 7 minutes waiting [an increase over previous findings] and yet "patients who waited more than four hours, but received 'good' or 'very good' information about delays were just as satisfied as patients who spent less than one hour in the emergency department." [note: bolding mine]

In other words, interacting with those waiting and eliminating their uncertainty about the wait positively affected their waiting experience.

In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill dedicates a chapter to waiting and the retail experience.  It's titled "Time, Real and Perceived" and states "...the single most important factor in determining a shopper's opinion of the service he or she receives is waiting time.... Quite simply, a short wait enhances the entire shopping experience and a long one poisons it."

However, he explains that shoppers' perception of waiting time can be 'bent' or modified.

Time is a funny thing. We may measure it with a watch, but our internal sense of time may override what the watch tells us [think of times when time flies or seems to drag forever].

According to Paco, "when people wait up to about a minute and a half, their sense of how much time has elapsed is fairly accurate.  Anything over ninety or so seconds, however, and their sense of time distorts.... Taking care of a customer in two minutes is a success; doing it in three minutes is a failure."

And yet those folks waiting in emergency rooms did so for much longer and were satisfied! Why?

His advice for the retail experience:

Interaction - human or otherwise - makes a difference.  "The time a shopper spends waiting after an employee has initiated contact goes faster than time spent waiting before that interaction takes place."

Eliminate uncertainty"Tell shoppers their wait will be finite and controlled rather than open-ended and subject to the vagaries of fate and chance."

Companionship.  It's much easier to wait if you have someone to talk to.

Diversion.  "Almost anything will suffice." Communicate a message, offer reading materials; in so doing you 'bend' shoppers' perception of waiting time.

My favorite personal example took place several years ago when my flight was canceled and I had to spend an extra night on the road. When I reached the airport Marriott, a line of fellow stranded travelers stretched out the door, all waiting to check in. Not good. I had no other choice than to wait...After a while, a Marriott employee made his way through the line reassuring those waiting that additional personnel had been called to help expedite registration [interaction, eliminate uncertainty]. Next, he produced a silver tray filled with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies which he offered to each of us [diversion!] while thanking us for our patience.  This then broke the ice between those of us waiting and we all began to chat, expressing amazement over the cookies [companionship].  I was sorry when it was my turn to check in. Marriott had successfully bent time for me, altering my perception of waiting time.

Paco's advice on bending time or altering waiting translates to my hotel experience as well as emergency room waiting.  What about in your business? What do you do to help bend waiting time in your retail experience?

Image Credit:
Time Warped? originally uploaded by onkel_wart


Bruce D. Sanders, PhD said...

Eliminating uncertainty is especially important in making waiting time more tolerable for the customer. It's not just a matter of, "How long will I need to wait?" Researchers at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and at University of Toronto verified that it's also, "Is someone who arrived in line after me going to get served before me?" This is an argument for retailers using a pooled queue—one waiting line, snacking around if necessary—that feeds into the bank of cash/wrap stations.
In addition, those researchers found that another social justice source of stress for the waiting customer is the question, "Did shoppers who came here at a different hour or different day wait a shorter amount of time than I'm needing to wait?" I suggest addressing that one by announcing so those in line can hear, "Available staff to the registers," or "Customer question in the Video Game aisle." Show that you configure your staffing to fit the demand.
Last year, while I was making an orientation walk of the sales floor in a new consultation client's store, the speaker system squawked, "Code 6." I asked my host, "What does Code 6 mean?" She said, "Oh that means any qualified staff who are free should go up to work the registers." I replied, "It's not just those staff you want to know. You want the customers waiting in line to know help is on the way. How about making that message, 'Available staff to the registers'?"

Marcia Noyes said...

Nice post. As the first mobile application to push out ER Wait Times, our company understands how this transparency frames the expectations for the patient. All important information when you are waiting in pain.

Glad you brought Paco Underhill into your post. What a great man. Everyone should read his books.....at least every business!


Marcia Noyes
Director of Marketing/PR

CB Whittemore said...

Bruce, you bring up excellent examples of situations that create negative feelings in customers. There's nothing worse than thinking we are being taken advantage of and that we are wasting our most precious resource, time. Social justice [or injustice] is something shoppers pay attention to.

Did you get any feedback from the retail store you visited on how the different reference [code 6 vs. staff to the register] improved the retail experience?

Thanks for being part of this discussion.


CB Whittemore said...

Marcia, your mobile application looks terrific! What a great solution to improving patients' experiences and meeting/exceeding their expectations.

I completely agree with you about Paco! I'm hoping his latest book offers similar insights and inspiration to Why We Buy.

Thanks for contributing to this post.


Bruce D. Sanders, PhD said...

Re the “code 6 vs. staff to registers,” the client wasn’t receptive to my suggestion. They implemented other ideas I collaborated with them in developing, but they didn’t make the change from “code 6.” A mistake, I think. But as an external consultant, I always have in mind that the client knows more about the total picture of their operations than I do. And when I get invited back for another assignment, I’ll sometimes find that a seed I’d planted just took a while to blossom.

Bruce D. Sanders, PhD said...

Marcia’s comment about ER wait times brought to mind another aspect of waiting and the retail experience--there are circumstances in which a consumer actually prefers to wait. Researchers at Boston College, University of Miami, and Duke University explored consumers’ reactions to waiting for events like medical and dental appointments and college and job interviews. The researchers found that a number of consumers in these situations wanted ample waiting time once they arrived for the appointment. This gave these consumers the opportunity to implement a plan to cope with what they felt was a difficult ordeal.

CB Whittemore said...

Bruce, bummer about 'code 6.' Fingers crossed that the seed germinates...

Fascinating insights about 'necessary' waiting. That's the introspective, transitionary waiting that helps you move from one stage to another.

Waiting isn't all bad.

Thanks so much for sharing these marvelous perspectives.


The Floor Covering Institute Blog said...

I was just remembering my longest ER wait time...10 hrs...but because the doctors kept stopping by, and perhaps because I my vantage point allowed me to see a lot of what was going on in that busy place...(and maybe the pain medication they gave me helped) the wait was not as horrible as one might think. Had I been left alone with no interaction I am certain this would be a different story.

I loved this post Christine. It's logical that interaction or reading material impacts the perception of time spent waiting and it's an example of a low-cost way to impact the customer experience and the delivery of brand we talked about recently. Susan Negley

CB Whittemore said...

Susan, that ER wait sure sounds like an intense one, but what a great example of 'bending' time.

I bet you got to the point where you had concocted stories about all of the various characters, and probably witnessed several shift changes.

Thanks for sharing this extreme example.


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