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Despite continued uncertainty after a year and a half of the pandemic, people are out and about. And with more people experiencing things that they have put off for so long — such as gathering, shopping, and dining — long lines come with the territory. Restaurants across the country are experiencing longer wait times for a table. And a recent Barron’s article stated that foot traffic at department stores and malls is equal to or greater than pre-pandemic levels.
The current staffing shortages are adding to the lines because there is less staff working to serve customers. Restaurants in the Florida resort town of Sarasota, for example, faced staffing issues this summer, with one restaurant owner receiving only three applications in a month rather than one or two dozen, and another operating with just 75% staffing.
While customers may be more willing to wait in line than they were before the pandemic, long lines can have negative side effects. Some customers see lines, turn away, and may not return. Even customers who are willing to stand in line may get frustrated. And frustrated customers can lash out at employees, affecting your employee satisfaction. There’s the potential for a domino effect.
Businesses can keep the lines shorter by allowing people to book ahead using Square Appointments, for example, or offering curbside pickup and delivery so people don’t have to wait in line. Other techniques include creating apps for customers to monitor the wait times before leaving their homes, as well as using digital signage in the line to display an estimated wait time from each point.
In cases where the lines can’t be helped, businesses can turn the time customers spend in line into a new opportunity to address a captive audience.
Theme parks offer a great model of how to help customers pass the time in line to make it feel quicker. In the 1930s, Knotts Berry Farm entertained guests in line with covered wagons, live monkeys on leashes, and an 800-year-old redwood tree stump. Today, theme parks like Disney have created elaborate mini-museums that guests walk through to pass the time while in line.
While that’s a bit overboard for the average business, it does offer some inspiration for creative thinking around enhancing the line experience for customers. Because customers’ expectations for time spent in line are low, business owners can relatively easily — and affordably — use it as an opportunity to increase brand loyalty.
Here are five ways business owners can turn waiting in line into a positive experience:
Look for opportunities to upsell.
One of the best ways to keep customers happy in line is to give them free stuff. Think of ways to bring the experience of your brand to the people in line, such as passing out free samples of menu items. By offering items that are typically upsells, such as bites of dessert, appetizers, or specialty drinks, restaurant owners can keep customers happy while also potentially increasing add-on purchases. Other retailers can ask for samples from distributors to pass out in line, which is a win for the retailer as well as the product manufacturer.
Offer accessible Wi-Fi from the line.
Everyone will be on their phones while waiting in line. Make it easy for them to get on WiFi by letting them know the password or having a guest option that doesn’t require a password. This will enable people to post on social while they are waiting, potentially increasing awareness about your business, as well allowing them to access your website and other online experiences.
Let customers see the menu or product offerings.
While some stores and restaurants are using QR codes for menus to create a more contactless experience, others are taking the QR codes to the line. You can create signs with the QR codes that are appropriate for your target customer base and display them along the line’s route. For example, a spa can post signs with the QR code and customer quotes about how a specific treatment helped their health issues or reduced stress. The spa could also use QR codes for customers to access videos showing the experience of add-on treatments, such as a foot massage or a pedicure. Restaurants can use QR codes to take customers to the menu so they can plan their order, but also to behind-the-scenes videos of dishes being made.
Turn the line into an event.
The best way to make a line a positive experience is to make customers feel like they are doing something totally different from waiting in line. A pet supply store could bring rescue pets for some socialization with waiting customers, while a garden store could have kids decorate pots to keep them busy. Slutty Vegan ATL turned their line into a party, complete with music and food, so their customers enjoyed the time spent waiting. And to make it even more fun, the staff comes out into the line and films videos that are later shared on social media, turning waiting customers into online stars.
Gamify the wait.
Look for ways to make the time pass quickly, such as a bingo or trivia game. Visitors at Disney World and Disneyland can pass the time on the Play Disney Parks app, which creates interactive experiences based on their location in the park. For example, while waiting in line for Star Wars: Galaxy Edge, visitors can translate languages, scan objects around the spaceport and decrypt messages sent by the planets’ residents.
As you brainstorm ways to make your line a more positive experience, start by thinking about your customers and their wants. You can even run ideas by some customers to get real-life feedback. Also, think about your brand and how you talk to your customers. You want your in-line experience to be on-brand and work with all of your other messaging. Creating an experience that does not align with your brand’s values and tone can actually do more harm than good.
Be willing to have some fun and think outside the box a bit. By trying new ideas and doing something your customers have never seen before, you can get them talking about your line in a good way.