HACKING QUEUES: your tips for the perfect customer wait

HACKING QUEUES – getting organised for the perfect customer wait
December 18, 2019 Adam Stead
In Hospitality, Special Projects
a queue of people queueing

Are you a cafe, quick service, or full service restaurant? Do you have spikes and troughs in demand and constant capacity? Do you long to hold onto those customers who begin to wait… only to move on, because your queue seems too long, or is unpleasant to stand in?

This is our guide to hacking queues; and how you can organise your cafe for the perfect customer wait.

Once you’ve decided on a legal structure for your quick service restaurant or cafe, and settled on a location, the next step is to establish your layout. There are tech solutions here – depending on what you’re optimising for. But depending on your size and circumstances, those solutions might be less important than decisions around the nuts and bolts of queues. 

And then there’s some nuts and bolts decisions around how to organise the queue. Here’s our taxonomy of a lunch queue – from a consumer perspective. 

What the Queue?

To get warmed up, here’s some queue terminology. 

Queue Starter Uncertainty – where you’re not sure where the queue starts, and people standing around, ends. “Are you queueing?”

Queue Anxiety – the feeling induced by large amounts of “queue chaos” 

Queue Chaos Level – the entropy level of a given queue. Since queues hope to rescue us from chaos 

Queue progress loss aversion – in which you do not want to switch to another line which is plainly faster.

Queue abandonment regret – in which you change lines, lose your progress, to see your previous line accelerate forward. 

Queue-ty pie – where you try to use queue time to flirt with another patron, with mixed degrees of success

queue pyschology

1) The “Rule of Six”

rule of six psychology of queueing

The “rule of six” was pioneered by Adrian Furnham, a Professor of Psychology at UCL. It says that people wait for six minutes and then they lose patience, and go elsewhere. According to this rule, people view a queue of around six people and lose interest.

Common sense tells us this is an approximation; people will queue for longer for some things than others. “You won’t wait for six minutes at an ATM machine,” Furnham says, “but you will if you want concert tickets. Six minutes was the sort of average.”

This is really a function of your till efficiency and your kitchen efficiency. But it goes without saying – the first rule of queues is keep them short. A study by Box technologies said that more than 90% of customers left long queues. 

As Imogen Wethered, the CEO and co-founder of the Retail Choreography solutions provider Qudini, says: “Modern consumers don’t have the patience for queues, especially when buying products they can pick up online instead. For most retailers, eliminating physical queues is your best bet. Digital queues give your customers accurate wait times and greater visibility, which often results in them browsing your store and buying more products.”

2) A single line is (usually) best

a single line is best queue

The number one principle when it comes to queueing (even for us Brits) is fairness. When people think they’re being treated fairly, they’re happy. No one likes a queue cutter. 

Surveys show that many people will wait longer in line for fast food if the establishment uses a first-come first-served, single queue ordering system as opposed to a multi-queue. This is even if you subsequently have multiple servers at the end. 

”Queue hedging” – where a party spreads out over multiple lines when the entire party intends to join the most successful queuer. 

3) Make sure everyone can see the reward 

queue header 3 – see the reward

A queue is a system of hardship followed by reward – and evidence shows that food obtained after some queueing can taste better because of the queue’s hardship. Queueing has been linked to better financial discipline for this reason.

But it’s important to be able to see the reward. The reward must feel achievable in order to continue to incentivise people – specifically, people should know that they’re making progress! For the same reason, it’s also been demonstrated that one major cause of queue dissatisfaction is being last. Queueing for a long time whilst being at the back of the queue irks people as they feel they have not made progress, even if they’ve moved closer to the front. 

Conversely, Disney theme parks reportedly exercise “queue chunking” – the practice of snaking queues around corners to cut them up into manageable stages. 

4) Prime your customers to speed up your till-time

prime your users for faster queues

There is nothing worse than a customer getting to the end of a long queue, and dithering. One way to engineer a faster queue is to make sure your customers are adequately primed to give their order quickly when they reach the end. Make sure the menu is visible and that a customer has everything they need to make their decision before they get to the checkout. 

Another way to speed up till-time, of course, is to have a rapid EPOS system for QSR – in which you can take orders as rapidly and conversationally as possible. Sub-primed queuer frustration syndrome” – when the person in front of you doesn’t get their oystercard out until after they arrive at the barrier.

4) Sweat your queue. People will keep buying more things

sweat your queue70.5% of respondents in one recent survey described food as their most common form of impulse purchase, and people spend an average of $5,400 (£4,091) per year on impulse purchases. This is a good opportunity to upsell. Starbucks and Pret often have islands offering biscuits, dried fruit and wafers that customers can pick up whilst waiting in line. 

In sit-down restaurants, it makes sense to park customers in the bar while they wait for a table to free up. But beware: bars are generally less profitable per square metre than restaurants, so if you’re always packed out, it’s usually a net loss to convert restaurant space to table space. 

“Queueshopper” – somebody who enters queues solely to buy the impulse purchases available in them.

5) Offer Free WiFi, and other attractions (All queues)

Free WiFi and other attractionsWhat would make you more patient? At the longer end of queues, you might want to start to employ tactics to distract your queuers, such as offering free WiFi.

In really long queues, such as theme park rides, conscious and sustained effort has gone into making the queue an “experience” – not quite relevant to cafes, but some cafes such as the explicitly-named “Fuckoffee” have lots of interesting things to look at, such as in their case, a rejection for trademark of such an explicit name. 

Existential queue productivity syndrome – the existential desire to use queue time to “do” something, whereas the time would otherwise be dead. People with this syndrome will usually start typing an email on their smartphones even in queues of 30 seconds or less. 

6) A physical queue signals desirability

This is more applicable to more aspirational and high-value items. But mimetic desire is the psychological phenomenon of wanting what other people want. Other people wanting something shows us that that thing is valuable; and therefore, we want it too. 

Some restaurants like Dishoom and Bao weaponise queues – they’re able to show how tasty they are by the length of their queue. Unfortunately, you need to be careful with this one – it’s not good enough to induce a queue by slowing your till and then expect more people to want to shop there! 

Queue envy – in which you find yourself desirous of that which others have queued for. 

queue for mcdonalds

Historic queues: in 1990, Russian citizens queue around the block for the country’s first McDonald’s. Gorbachev says you should always offer free WiFI.


7) Use an order and pay system

An order and pay system, also sometimes called a QR code menu  or a table order app, could be the best solution to help you get started on cutting queues in your store.


allocating queue space

It’s all very well investing in customer psychology, but it’s also important to use the space you have.

Here’s our tips for space allocation from a practical perspective:  

1) Queue to pay and collect separate? Allocate adequate waiting space for collection.

allocate space for collection

Determining the area for the wait stations should also be taken into account when designing your floor plans. One small station should take up 6–10 square feet, sufficient for 20 diners. 

It’s true that it’s possible to have a queue outside – but if you have a waiting area for food, everybody needs to be able to see or hear the person calling names.

2) It’s possible to over-engineer a physical queue

over engineer a queue

It’s all too easy to over-engineer your queueing system. But your elaborate masterplan will likely fail if it’s not clear. Wayfinding in your cafe needs to be simple enough that someone completely new, or a lost tourist, will be perfectly capable of getting their coffee.

There is some advantage to being pro-chaos. In this case, your customers are going to work out how to get their food on their own, and the responsibility is taken off your hands. Often people just want their morning cup of joe – and they want it with minimal human interaction, and without having to deal with a complicated queue system.

3) Outside is free shop floor space

Kensington and Chelsea is the most expensive area in London per metre square, at a whopping £19,439 per square metre. And how many square metres of your store are you going to dedicate to a queue? 

If you’re *extremely* high throughput like a Pret a Manger, it still makes sense to dedicate some internal space to the queue when you’re paying that much; but otherwise, an outdoor queue is essentially giving yourself extra store space dedicated to your patrons, for free. 

A quick warning: this can get you in trouble with your local council or borough, who might offer a beady eye and start trying to figure out ways to prevent loitering. But it’s not your fault if you’re popular, and you have an A3 license  – what are you going to do, make the product worse? 

4) Allocate space to what makes you money

allocate space to what makes you money

As your items become cheaper; your profit per times become smaller; your throughput needs to be higher in order to make the same amount of money. 

For cafes, you may want to consider maximising throughput by eliminating tables and focusing on maintaining a large fast queue at peak times. Sit-down customers aren’t likely to make you much more money than queuers; and you can get more queuers in at one space. The most profitable cafes are likely to dedicate more space to a queue. 

If you are a restaurant with limited space, you may want to determine whether a table or a small bar is more lucrative per hour. If it’s a bar, that’s a good place to allow people to stand as they queue – but it’s more likely to be the restaurant. Then, since it makes you no money to store your queue inside, and hovering would-be patrons might irritate people sitting down, we’d recommend a “closed car park” queue (chapter 3) 

So, if you have a high average spend per customer, it makes more sense to invest in tables and customer experience rather than trade out lucrative table space for queue space. Here, you may prefer a technological solution, or to queue on the street. If you do “suffer” from really high demand, it’s always advisable to have a maitre de at the front. 

5) There’s always regulations


Specifically, legal accessibility requirements. If you provide goods or services to the public (that’s you), the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (in Northern Ireland) and the Equality Act 2010 (in the rest of the UK) oblige you to cater to disabled individuals so that you are not discriminating against them. This involves the duty to make services accessible by making reasonable adjustments to stairways, steps, parking areas, entrances, exits, doors and gates, toilets and washing facilities. 

In your floor plan, you might factor in wheelchair turning radius, so that users can easily turn around in the aisle. And if your queue goes up stairs, you might want to look into tech solutions around ticketing so that your wheelchaired patrons.  

6) Get a good POS

Yes, we sell POS systems, this was bound to be here somewhere. 

Good queue management will help you hold on to customers, but won’t in itself improve either output or demand – which are the two things you need to keep really high to sell as much as possible. 

For that, you need to focus on efficiency. Part of that is how you run your kitchen and the food you make; but the other part making your “point-of-sale” as rapid as possible. 

get a good POS

Next Up: Chapter 2

Read about queuenomics for grab ‘n’ go stores

We take on queue styles for people queueing for a counter. We examine the Starbucks and Pret style queueing systems.

Read about queuenomics for casual hospitality 

We take on queues for people queueing for a table AND a counter – double trouble! Where do you queue first

Read about queuenomics for sit-down restaurants

Finally, how do you manage a table queue? Is it as tough as it sounds?


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