Retail TouchPoints: How Can Retailers Make Checkout Waits More Bearable?

Discussion
Jul 16, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail TouchPoints website.

Studies suggest that customer perception of product and service quality is the single best predictor of market share. As such, improving the perception of service quality is vitally important. Many retailers need look no further than the waiting line, where an otherwise positive shopping visit can be destroyed, to discover a place where the customer experience can be strengthened or even salvaged.

Based on David Maister’s widely quoted work on the psychology of waiting lines, here are six ways to improve the perception of service quality when it comes to the waiting line experience:

  1. Occupy their time: Keeping customers’ minds or hands busy prevents them from focusing on the passage of time, and makes the time waiting seem to pass more quickly. Two of the quickest solutions to occupying time: digital signage/video and in-line merchandising. Running promotional stills, commercials, or a TV show on strategically-placed digital screens can effectively capture and occupy attention.
  2. Get them started: The ability to fill out paperwork while in line, to unload the cart while another person is being served — any task that initiates a customer’s transaction before the actual exchange begins — can be effective in getting people started.
  3. Reduce the anxiety: Retailers opting for a single-line queue with multiple servers shorten both the actual and perceived waits. Knowing there is only one option for waiting, that every customer is in it together, and that you’re not missing out on an expedited process elsewhere helps customers relax and wait more happily. A service agent’s acknowledgement that a customer is present can also go a long way toward alleviating a customer’s anxiety about waiting.
  4. Make the wait certain: Eliminating this unknown reduces customer anxiety. A line might look long, but if they’re being promised that the wait is only two minutes, the long line is then acceptable. The key, of course, is to be as accurate as possible about the estimated wait time, preferably overestimating. Frustrations will only increase if the wait time exceeds the expected wait.
  5. Explain the wait: Simply telling customers that a register isn’t working or explaining whatever the hold-up may be can make them more understanding of the wait they might have to endure
  6. Make it equitable: This first-come, first-served method gives everyone in line a similar wait — or at least a bearable one — because it is an equitable wait.

Waiting is a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to actually be loathsome.

What do you think are some the best ways to improve the perception of service around waits at checkout lines? Is changing perception enough in many cases?

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21 Comments on "Retail TouchPoints: How Can Retailers Make Checkout Waits More Bearable?"

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Debbie Hauss
BrainTrust

First the perception, then the reality. All six tips are good ones, but if the follow through isn’t there, then the retailer has lost the endgame.

On the opposite side, ignoring the perception of the checkout experience is a bad idea. While I am a relatively loyal CVS shopper for certain items, I often dread the checkout experience. There is no organized process for waiting and I’ve seen arguments among customers on more than one occasion when one person decided they were “next” but another person disagreed.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

With everyone pressed for time, it’s important to reduce waits in line as much as possible. While the article suggests a number of ways to keep customers occupied, so the wait seems more tolerable, retailers need to focus on reducing the actual waits.

In Los Angeles, Costco is notorious for the amount of time consumers spend waiting to check out. Lines for the registers frequently bend and stretch into the aisles, and the waits cause consumer gripes. Lately Costco seems to be addressing the issue by being ready to immediately open more registers. They have not fixed the problem, but customers can see that it is being addressed.

Other retailers should follow this example. As soon as lines start to build, open more registers. This may mean training employees to handle multiple responsibilities. If the last part of the shopping experience is checking out, why would a retailer want a customer to leave with a negative impression?

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Occupying a shopper’s time (attention) is surely the best option in this list to ease wait anxiety, but it’s more difficult than outlined here. In fact, I totally disagree with the implication of the statement, “Two of the quickest solutions to occupying time: digital signage/video and in-line merchandising. Running promotional stills, commercials, or a TV show….” Very few people want to be treated like captive fodder for more advertising at the end of a shopping trip. A TV show—which one? Something that targets fidgety kids, sports, cooking, or what? For some specialty retailers that have a homogenous clientele, that might have some success, but only sans commercials. Instead, what about having associates interact with waiting customers, seeing if they have special check-out needs, expired coupons, etc.?

Glaringly missing from this list is mention of mobile technology. Accelerate the move towards mobile/digital check-out solutions or other related technology to get more shoppers out of the ordinary queue and into an expedited line or no line at all. That will be appreciated and as the queuing customers see the technologically enhanced customers avoiding the wait, more and more will adopt mobile check-out, further resolving the wait issue.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Why do they need to wait in the first place? Disney offers the Fast Pass. Drivers can use an EZPass. Even airlines, which are notorious for disappointing customer service, provide dedicated check-in lines and special 800 reservation phone numbers for frequent flyers.

Everyone has a store card (don’t call it a loyalty card). Why don’t retailers offer designated, reserved time checkout options for good customers?

Waiting in line should not be a necessary evil. Technology and a dedication to delighting customers have provided solutions from other industries. Success leaves clues. Follow them.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

One of the most frustrating shopping experiences relates to several of the big box retailers that have 20+ check out stations and only three are open at any given time! What is the point!! And who is responsible for designing these stores? An NCR and Symbol shareholder! Accurate communication is always extremely effective and appreciated by people. Let us know what is going on and we’ll suffer quietly. Shopping happens!

Raymond D. Jones
Guest
Raymond D. Jones
3 years 11 months ago

Our Front-end Focus research studies suggest several possible solutions.

The issue is really more perception than actual time. Providing shoppers with something to occupy their attention is key. Having TV screens, magazines and other interesting merchandise is essential.

Studies show that many customers prefer self scan checkouts because they feel more in control of the situation. They perceive their transaction time is quicker although it is often longer in real time.

Properly executed, a single line queuing system will be more more efficient and can reduce the wait somewhat but often requires significant changes in store formats and may be restricted by fire regulations.

The real key is not the actual time but providing shoppers options that enable them to transact in the way they feel most comfortable. This will do the most to enhance their checkout experience.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust
3 years 11 months ago

Make sure that all cash registers are manned when the line reaches a certain point. The most important interactions are the first and the last. People forget what happens in the middle.

gordon arnold
Guest

Why wasn’t there any mention of scheduling adequate coverage, or remedies for call-outs and low cashier inventories? Have these issues gone away since yesterday? In our quest for higher profit taking during the depression, the absence of qualified help in stores and on the phone is crippling all attempts to gain market share.

The retailers that figure this out will get returns on the investment if the solution is kept realistic. Creating an on-call solution for call-outs would by itself relieve stress on the phones and at customer service locations with room to relieve check-out pressure quickly and as needed.

Joel Rubinson
BrainTrust

I feel this is all a bit silly. It feels like ways of tricking shoppers into believing the lines are shorter than they really are. The best experience I have is when I am at the end of a line and store personnel come over and say “we can take you at checkout such and such.” It turns the wait into a delightful surprise and shows the retailer cares about me.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
3 years 11 months ago

The one line system I have seen and used at clothing outlets including Gap appears to work well. One option and it moves fast because someone is always completing an order.

For grocery this would be tough. The best option for this outlet is to be flexible on how many registers you have open. Two deep and you open another register. Be proactive and bring people from a line into your newly opened lane.

Final thought is to create an information app that people can view on their phone while waiting in line. Consumers can use your rewards app or a QR code at the register. As people wait they can learn a new recipe, and get facts on new items in the store. People truly value content. Provide them some great content while they wait and that may ease the pain.

Rynder Roy Klomp
Guest
Rynder Roy Klomp
3 years 11 months ago

One of the major aggravation points for shoppers is waiting in a long line, and observing many closed cash registers. Retailers tend to install cash registers to peak period demand. They might consider installing fewer registers and investing more in lane-buster mobile registers.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

I hate to throw a wet blanket on this debate, but all of these “bandages” have been placed upon the POS at retailers for decades, in one form or another. The problem still exists.

I do like Richard George’s ideas, though. As I have said many times in this site before, we do need to look outside our industry to the good things that hospitality and airlines do effectively. I remember when I was a grocery store manager, we had “Super Teams” way before club cards came into being. We would have three people on each register with signing for large, full-cart orders. One employee would unload the cart, the next would scan/tender and the last would bag the order. It gave a feeling of being special in the minds of the shoppers. I do believe “Premier” checkout lines for loyal shoppers adds to the perception of good, responsive service.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

I’m with Joel on this one. I think it’s silly. The real question is, how many customers actually abandon their carts because of the wait? Not many. Why? We know there will be a wait.

Anyone with a half a brain knows that retailers are using educated guesses to determine how many cashiers to have on hand. We know there may be reasons for longer waits sometimes. Yes, we hope they have some standbys to pull onto the registers if their is a slam.

Entertaining me through the wait does nothing for me. Smiling at me, treating me like you care, making sure it’s equitable, now that’s what matters and yes, I will come back!

David Livingston
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

I like what Woodmans did in Wisconsin. They have lowered prices so low that customers pretty much stand around at the checkout talking about their low prices and the high prices of competitors. Then they staff the front end with the best looking and friendliest employees. TVs, digital signage, explaining shortcomings, etc. are all good, but nothing replaces good old pleasant human interaction.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Best way to improve the wait at checkout lines… Eliminate it!

Retailers spend money getting people into their stores, then servicing and selling them, only to (sometimes) taint the experience with a long wait at checkout. It’s the last impression, and it should be a (positive) lasting impression.

Time is a precious commodity, and when our customers know we recognize this, they appreciate us even more.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I’m with Joel and Lee on this one (say, that makes “three’s a crowd,” maybe it’s time to open a new thread): perception of service quality leads to market share because it’s correct…hence quality>perception>share; the idea that you can skip the first part is wishful thinking. As for the suggestions themselves, number 5 is only valid if its really true, and number 4 only works if the wait really IS brief.

In short, lines are a staffing issue; if you don’t want people to wait, then staff so they don’t have to wait…pretending something isn’t true isn’t a marketing strategy, it’s a way to lose market share strategy.

Robert DiPietro
BrainTrust

Disney has this mastered. You can wait over an hour for a ride and somehow it is okay, even though you just paid $50 to get into the park. Although they break the equitable rule, the line jumping service.

In my consumer experience, Dick’s sporting goods has this down fairly well. Single queue so no missing out on a shorter line, occupied my time with TVs above checkout, merchandise the queue with impulse items (could be a con) and call up help when needed.

The single best thing for perception of service is the single queue so you don’t feel as if you chose poorly as a consumer.

Matt Fifer
Guest
Matt Fifer
3 years 11 months ago

It seems to me that retailers ought to spend less time trying to manage perception, and more time fixing the problems that have been irritating their shoppers for decades.

My belief is that there are dark days ahead for brick and mortar retailers, as online alternatives become faster, cheaper, easier AND more personalized (where the system knows exactly how you like your bananas). At some point consumers will revolt, take their precious time back, and stay home.

It’s time for retailers to get their stuff together (checkout experience, in-stock, etc.), because consumers will lose patience more and more quickly as they have more and better options that allow them to skip many (not all) shopping trips altogether.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

It seems Dick’s Sporting Goods has this worked out equitably for all. They have registers open based on the lines and how busy the store is at certain times. The lines move fast and no one seems upset.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
3 years 11 months ago
The best thing to do is decrease the wait time. Why would anyone want to mess with wasting time on making one feel okay about experiencing rather than working on fixing the problem? Grocers and other retailers should staff for traffic. They could use staffing solutions used by fast food restaurants which predict customer needs well in advance based upon historical demand broken into 15 minute segments. When I was a a kid bagging groceries 50 years ago we knew when business was going to be heavy and when it was gong to be slack and the owner of our grocery store managed to staff appropriately without a computer or legal pad. He knew when customers were going to shop and how many people he needed to serve his customers. He SOLVED the problem for his customers. One thing that could be done is to encode the affinity/loyalty cards so it can recognize that I am 65 years old and won’t make me wait 5 minutes for a clerk to verify this when I want to buy a bottle of wine. For gosh sakes make some sort of real use of your loyalty program. Work on getting the advertised price… Read more »
Alexander Rink
BrainTrust
3 years 11 months ago

All of the tips in the article are great ways to improve customers’ perceptions while waiting in line. A couple that I can think of from the masters, Disney, include distracting your attention while you wait, and posting estimated wait times that are actually greater than the amount of time that it will take from that point forward.

That said, an important one to address is ensuring that employees are trained to promptly serve customers in line, rather than having only one cashier when a lineup starts to form, or having cashiers chat with one another when there are customers waiting. Changing perception will certainly help, but the best is to combine it with making real efficiency improvements to minimize wait times.

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