Have retailers solved their long line problems?

The line to enter a Houston-area HEB store in March, 2020 - Photo: Getty Images/Richard McMillin
Jan 06, 2021

Outside line monitoring, reservations, time limits and mobile checkout are some ways retailers have been managing customer queues during the pandemic.

Lines outside grocers and big boxes seen at the beginning of the pandemic are expected to return in many locations as COVID-19 cases spike across the country. In California, regulations introduced at the beginning of December limit indoor capacity for retailers in some harder-hit areas to 20 percent. Retailers are also likely to be dealing with lines for vaccine shots at in-store pharmacies, in turn leading to longer lines to enter stores and drive queues.

Wegmans stands out for installing live camera feeds at its highest-traffic stores to enable shoppers to see if there is likely a long wait. Among the measures to manage lines outside, Target introduced a microsite in October, Target.com/line, that lets shoppers check to see if there is a line outside their local store and, if so, reserve a spot. Shoppers receive a text message when they can enter.

Other chains, including Apple, Best Buy, Williams Sonoma, Neiman Marcus and Williams Sonoma, also offer shop-by-appointment but haven’t played up the service, with crowds less of an issue in recent months.

Inside some smaller stores, owners have used uptempo music and gentle persuasion to encourage customers to shop quickly and make way for those waiting outside, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The article noted the capacity limits have particularly impacted smaller locations.

Some restaurants have adopted time limits and museums are issuing time-entry passes.

To minimize in-store checkout lines, self-checkout with a mobile device or mobile checkout via an associate are a newer focus for many stores.

Writing for The Atlantic, Elissaveta Brandon says she suspects distractions, such as those employed by Disney to keep patrons entertained in lines, may be used more to reduce the boredom of waiting in lines due to the pandemic. She’s hoping new apps, AI-driven technologies to determine crowd conditions and other advancements triggered by the pandemic will reduce the need for lines. Ms. Brandon wrote, “If your greatest asset is time, why waste it by waiting in line?”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see the pandemic helping to drive innovation around line management? Which emerging solutions do you see being most beneficial in minimizing lines outside stores or at checkout?

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"Cameras, AI, and proper scheduling are likely most effective in reducing or eliminating a wait outside the store."

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16 Comments on "Have retailers solved their long line problems?"

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Mark Ryski

Managing queues is not a new problem, but it’s a problem of an entirely different order of magnitude with the pandemic. It’s hard to innovate when you’re trying to serve customers under extreme circumstances like we are today. Traditional queue management solutions have not contemplated the challenges that the pandemic has created, and many retailers are simply using staff to manage queues. The lines-ups will remain a challenge until the pandemic subsides.

Neil Saunders

There has been innovation in line management, but the fact remains that for popular retailers there is often a line. No matter what time of day we visit Trader Joe’s, there’s a line to get in. The same is true of Apple where there is always a line to enter. The interesting thing is that although the friction is increased for these retailers, their popularity and strong offer means that people mind queuing far less because the perceived reward of shopping there is greater. Most of the big box stores like Target and Walmart have sufficient capacity to make lining up a fairly rare occurrence.

Gary Sankary

To your point- Target has really done a great job with managing demand. Especially for curbside pickup. In my experience they turn around online orders in about an hour.
Walmart has a reservation scheme in place for curbside pick up. The problem I’ve seen is you get to make your reservation only after you’ve filled your cart. And, after spending 15 minutes picking items for pick up, I find that the next available pick up window for me is in three or four days. Something to work on.

Scott Norris

Echoing Gary’s comment, Target has perfected its curbside game, doubling its pickup lanes outside and staffing generously. Cars barely have time to shift into park! Target has also maintained higher-than-usual for January staffing at its inside checkout lanes as well. Parking lots are full but inside lines are short.

Jeff Weidauer

The best line management solution is the one that eliminates the line. Cameras, AI, and proper scheduling are likely most effective in reducing or eliminating a wait outside the store.

Gary Sankary

My experience has been pretty positive in terms of lines. With the exception of smaller size stores with high demand (Trader Joe’s mostly) I haven’t seen lines to get into stores. I did see stores like Best Buy experimenting with appointment shopping though I don’t know that they ever needed it, at least not around the areas I visited.

I think the best solution, especially for high-demand, limited-space retailers is to offer appointments online. If the capacity of a store is 50 shoppers at one time, reserve X number of slots for appointments. I also like the idea of monitoring store capacity during the day and giving customers ideas of when the best times to come to store might be using historical data and daily sales forecasts.

For stores that are using location intelligence to monitor customers in the store, real time updates could also be very useful. Both as a customer service touchpoint and for store management to keep better tabs on traffic and capacity.

Nikki Baird

I have to say, the two innovations that I hope stick around are reservations and mobile checkout. As some have already pointed out, lines happened in some stores before the pandemic, so solutions here will live beyond the need to ration customers in stores for safety purposes. But reservations are one area where I think retailers might be tempted to downplay or eliminate once they don’t have capacity pressures, when they should not, because nothing gives you more information about a customer than when they tell you who they are, when they’re coming, and maybe even what they’re interested in getting help with – hours or days before they ever show up. Don’t let that immensely valuable information go to the wayside! And it’s a win for customers too – to know that they’ll get the help they need as soon as they walk in the door. No time wasted for anyone in that scenario!

Di Di Chan
Even before the pandemic, waiting in long checkout lines was the number one customer complaint. The pandemic makes waiting in line not only annoying but also potentially dangerous. The fastest-growing solution to help retailers manage lines is scan and go mobile checkout because it can solve lines and offer many more digital capabilities into physical stores. A good mobile checkout platform is easy to install, easy to promote, affordable, and extremely scalable. For example, New York’s Westside Market incorporates SIRL’s indoor item search and location navigation and Tiliter’s computer vision digital scale as part of their mobile checkout platform. Halla’s personalized recommendations engine is also being tested in stores and seeing promising base boosting results. Top retailers that have already adopted scan and go include Fairway Market, Westside Market, McKeever Price Chopper, Mother’s Market, Big Y, Hyvee, Mother’s Market, Spar, Okay, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Kroger, Wegmans, H-E-B, AHOLD, Dollar General, Macy’s, 7-Eleven, Disney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Saintsbury, Asda, M&S, Tesco, Waitrose, Co-op, Londis, and Budgens. Fairway Market and Sainsbury’s are leading the industry with over… Read more »
Cathy Hotka

It’s nothing short of amazing how retailers have stepped up to address so many unique challenges during COVID-19. Their accommodations to this crisis have inspired customer confidence and loyalty. Retailers describe themselves as “scrappy,” and that should be a mark of pride.

Harley Feldman

The pandemic has pressed retailers to solve line management problems through executive orders from state governors. In order to meet the executive order terms, retailers were “forced” to create solutions or be penalized or shut down. The most beneficial solutions are the ones where the consumer can schedule themselves into the queue at the store and receive a text message telling them when to show up at the store.

Peter Charness

Controlling the number of people coming into the store is certainly valid, and as others have mentioned AI-based video analytics can support that need. However it’s just as valid to get people out of the store quickly and effectively and not waiting in checkout lines. I’ve been in stores with good inbound controls but not enough cashiers to open up space for more shoppers.

Steve Montgomery

Historically lines outside of stores were a staple of Black Friday and some other shopping occasions such as grand openings. They were not an issue when going to a Trader Joe’s or Target. With the onset of the pandemic capacity restrictions retailers quickly learned that they had to find ways to manage outside queuing. It quickly became a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

The faster checkout process had started to gain momentum and there is no question that the issues that came with retailing in COVID-19 world quickened the pace of adoption and implementation. What is the right combination of line management, faster checkout and all the other tactics retailers have deployed will depend on the retailer.

Cynthia Holcomb

Line management innovation is an opportunity, a means to open the door for new companies to launch line management into new, novel technologies. Leaving many to say, “why didn’t I think of that?” Use case in mind, OpenTable is adding line management to its digital offerings. While this may seem insignificant, it is not. The future is uncertain as to the long-term effect of COVID-19 on “how” people will shop. Shopping by category — food, cars, clothes, etc., will bring new consumer use cases. Morphing into digitally native apps, reflective of new consumer shopping behaviors. Consumer acceptance of line management is an early example and gateway to future shopping tech innovations born on the back of the human COVID-19 experience.

Ralph Jacobson

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” Remember that? Smart leaders will continue to develop solutions to the crushing restrictions imposed due to the virus. It’s happening at innovative companies as we speak.

David Adelman

Providing constant communication with your customer is key in removing friction and frustration resulting in a better experience. The pandemic has definitely accelerated many companies’ internal platforms to eliminate it with information upgrades.

Best Buy was a leader in jumping to curbside pickup well before other chains. Communication with customers in line, whether they were there for BOPIS, curbside, or to buy a particular product, was amazing.

They eliminated frustration with long line ups by speaking to each customer, letting them know their product information and approximate wait times.

Increased CX training in customer communication will be key in 2021, providing the necessary tools and information for all retail staff to deliver an amazing shopping experience inside or out!

Andrey Podgornov
1 year 7 months ago

A pandemic, like any other crisis, stimulates innovation. About the lines. Lines at the entrance to a store are a direct consequence of slow customer progress inside the store. If you want to reduce the first, you need to speed up the second. You can ask people to do the shopping faster, like the retailers mentioned in the article, but it doesn’t help much if the merchandise is uncomfortably arranged on the shelves and the cashier is slow. Much depends on how quickly and clearly the staff does their job. And that’s where innovation is needed, to digitize operations and regularly assess their quality, thereby stimulating staff.

"Cameras, AI, and proper scheduling are likely most effective in reducing or eliminating a wait outside the store."

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