Customers' Evaluations of Queues: Three Exploratory Studies

ABSTRACT - Despite the fact that waiting for service is a frequently occurring phenomenenon, which may strongly affect customers' evaluations of the service, consumer researchers have given it scant attention. The purpose of the present study is to come to the identification of psychological factors involved in the reaction towards queuing and customer delay.


A.Th.H. Pruyn and A. Smidts (1993) ,"Customers' Evaluations of Queues: Three Exploratory Studies", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 371-382.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 371-382


A.Th.H. Pruyn, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

A. Smidts, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands


Despite the fact that waiting for service is a frequently occurring phenomenenon, which may strongly affect customers' evaluations of the service, consumer researchers have given it scant attention. The purpose of the present study is to come to the identification of psychological factors involved in the reaction towards queuing and customer delay.

Three exploratory studies have been conducted, with different methodologies: (a) a diary study was designed in order to come to a categorisation of situations in which queuing and waiting play a role. The relevance of this issue is indicated by the finding that, on the average, people spend more than half an hour each day on waiting, which produces substantial irritation and less satisfaction with the service proper; (b) in a conjoint analysis study four specific hypotheses were tested by means of scenario descriptions to which customers had to respond. It turned out that fairness is the most important factor in the evaluation of waiting situations. The second important factor was the perceived value of the service; (c) the third study concerned a field experiment in which customers' reactions to two different queuing systems (single queue and multiple queues) were compared. The waiting environment and objective waiting time were found to be the most influential factors on perceived duration of waiting. The difference in queuing system appeared to have minor effects.

It was concluded that a conceptual framework and empirical attention is much needed. Suggestions for a research agenda are provided.


Since 1974 the Dutch Consumers' Association has conducted four survey studies amongst their members with respect to waiting times in hospital policlinics (Consumentengids 1990). The picture that emerges from these studies is rather depressing. Apart from problems that patients may have in making an appointment with a doctor (time spans of 4 weeks or longer are by no means an exception), almost half of the reported waiting times took longer than half an hour. The mean waiting time within the clinic for each appointment amounts to 39 minutes. Multiplied by the total number of visits to hospital clinics each year, it seems that the Dutch population is waiting in hospital clinics almost 13 million hours, which is the equivalent of more than 1400 years of wasted time yearly.

The good news with respect to these figures is that since 1982 the situation seems to have improved somewhat. It was less frequently observed that patients had waiting times over 30 minutes. At the same time, however, patients showed to have become more impatient with respect to what they consider to be the maximally acceptable waiting span. In 1990 a mean of 16 minutes was reported, whereas in 1982 respondents seemed to be more tolerant when they said that 22 minutes would be a maximally acceptable waiting time in hospital clinics.

Growing awareness and decreasing tolerance with waiting in all sorts of situations is a trend which was predicted by Jacoby (1974) in an article about consumer reactions to information displays. He noted that as time becomes increasingly important in all forms of human behaviour, people seek to reduce time spent for mandated activities such as supermarket shopping (and presumably also medical check-ups) in order to gain free time for leisure activities. Whereas some three decades ago we still assumed that leisure time would be growing because of increasing efficiency flowing from automation, we now realize that people's needs have risen along with the level of technology (Schwartz, 1975). Even though some forms of production may have become less time consuming, the consumption of these products and everything that goes along with this (decision making, purchase, usage) presumably takes more time than ever before. In an era of growing consumption of goods and services, time thus has become scarce rather than superfluous, because modern production-, distribution-, and service systems have given us more to do within a similar (inelastic) time frame. As a consequence, the principle of punctuality seems to gain importance amongst consumers as regards the evaluation of services.

As a matter of fact this has already been acknowledged by some service industries in the U.S., who are claiming speed of service as a major competitive advantage (e.g., the battle of the fast food restaurants, but also, more recently a major U.S. bank who promises in advertisements that clients will never wait longer than 5 minutes in any teller line). Most recently we see a number of companies giving "queue delay guarantees", which entitle the customer to a free dessert or sum of money if the wait exceeds a set period of time.

We have the impression that in Europe entrepreneurs' minds have not yet been focused on time-related matters to the extent that their North-American counterparts have. This may have something to do with a difference in orientation towards the conception of time (see Graham, 1981 for more details on cultural differences in time perception), but it certainly does not imply that European consumers do not experience irritation in situations related to waiting. In a joint research project undertaken by Dutch food retailers, for example, data were collected from about 2000 households with respect to shopping habits and experiences (ConsumentenTrends, 1989). Subjects were asked, among others, to provide a list of what they regarded to be the most aggravating aspects of shopping. Results indicated that consumers seem to feel strongest irritation with long queues before the cashier's checkout. About 45% of the respondents find that very irritating, while 20% report that this happens quite often, at least in their perceptions.

To a somewhat lesser extent people may also get annoyed when they have to line up in front of different service counters within the shop. This kind of waiting, however, seems to happen less frequently ('only' 10% of the respondents claim so) and people appear to be less extreme in their reactions to it, as indicated by a 'mere' 21% who find queuing at in-shop counters irritating (ConsumentenTrends, 1989).

Unfortunately, none of the studies cited thus far provides any information on the consequences of the experienced irritation for the overall evaluation of the service and/or future consumer behaviour. Such information would, however, be essential for the assessment of the relevance that waiting experiences have for consumers. As a matter of fact, consumers' irritation in response to queuing may prove to have a totally different impact under various conditions of attribution. For example, "I was wrong to do my shopping during store rush hour" vs. "They should have opened more cash registers" or "Other consumers behave impolitely by not waiting for their turn". Consumer irritation might even have little significance with respect to the store choice when consumers consider queuing as an inevitable inconvenience of shopping.

From the observations cited above it may be concluded that the study of customers' reactions to queuing and delay is a relevant topic for service marketeers. Remarkably little research has been done in this field, however. In this paper we will review the scarce literature on the psychology of waiting and present three exploratory studies concerning customers' evaluations of waiting.


After a scan of management and psychology literature we agree with Maister (1985) that a substantive discussion of the experience of waiting has been largely lacking. However, there are now a number of fairly well-established notions in Operations Research to guide empirical work about the organization of queues, the minimalization of waiting times, and design of efficient queuing systems. Most of the articles related to this area of mathematical queuing theory are normative in character and can be found frequently in journals in the area of management science. Moreover, each introductory text on operations research contains an overview of the principles of queuing theory and applications to service system design (e.g., Buffa & Sarin, 1987). According to the latter authors waiting line theory basically rests upon three elements:

1. a customer model that specifies the arrival distribution (usually described in terms of Poisson distributions);

2. a priority rule that regulates the queue discipline ('first come-first served', 'service upon appointment', or 'service according to urgency');

3. a supply model that specifies the service distribution (how many service channels, how many service phases, how many servers per channel, how much time per service act, etc).

With these three elements one should be able to adequately analyze any queuing process and to make decisions as increasing (or decreasing) the number of servers, time for service, the priority rule and so forth, when there is no optimal fit between demand and supply of the service.

In our opinion this way of looking at the problem only partially deals with the problems involved in queuing. In order to acquire full knowledge about consumers' reactions to waiting lines and their queue behaviour, in marketing one would need to know (a) how priority rules and possible exceptions to these rules are evaluated, (b) how consumers perceive the passage of time whilst waiting, (c) what conditions may influence time perception and to what extent this takes place, (d) whether there are personal dispositions involved in (im)patience during waiting, (e) to what extent queuing experiences are related to feelings of social (in)justice (or, more precisely, equity), and (f) how attribution processes may intermediate levels of aggravation experienced.

The consumer behaviour and services marketing literature, however, devotes surprisingly little attention to waiting phenomena, let alone that the questions that mentioned above have been studied systematically. For example, in one of the most frequently used textbooks on consumer behaviour (Engel, Blackwell and Miniard, 1990) not a single reference has been made to queuing phenomena.

Of course, our questions can not be answered in just one paper. This article should be read as the start of a larger research project on the psychology of waiting lines. The aim of this project is to arrive at a theoretical framework of queuing and delay, which is to be based on a number of studies with respect to the aforementioned research questions. To this end, three exploratory studies have been conducted. These studies are to generate ideas for the construction of such a framework.

In the first study the attempt is made to get an indication of the role of waiting in an individual's daily life. Two-hundred-forty-three persons were asked to keep a diary during 7 consecutive days, in order to keep track of all situations in which waiting played a role. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the relevance of waiting related problems in terms of an estimation of the time wasted due to delays, missed appointments, queuing, etc. Moreover, data from diaries can form the basis of a taxonomy of situations involved in waiting.

In the second study different scenarios were designed for a conjoint analysis on four selected propositions by Maister (1985) with respect to psychological reactions to waiting. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether it would be possible to test relatively complex psychological phenomena related to waiting via scenario descriptions and to come to a ranking of different hypotheses in terms of relative importance.

The third study is a field experiment in which two queuing systems (single queue and multiple queue) used in two different post offices have been compared with respect to consumers' evaluations of the service and waiting experiences.


At the start of a research project on the psychology of waiting we wanted to have a general indication on how often people are forced to wait for services and how much time is involved. For the Dutch population there are some estimates with respect to average waiting times consumers have to face when they are shopping for consumer goods and medical and financial services. These estimates are based on a time-budget study reflecting the daily activities of the Dutch (Knulst & Van Beek, 1990). From this study it appears that consumers, whilst shopping weekly, lose an average of between 25 and 35 minutes on queuing. The problem with these figures is, however, that no information is provided for specific (categories of) waiting situations. Moreover, we would like to have an indication of how waiting in different situations is evaluated by the subject. Therefore the present study was designed in order to fill up these gaps. The critical question is how to collect data on this issue. In consumer behaviour literature this problem has been addressed by Jacoby, Szybillo and Kohn Berning (1976). These authors discussed a number of problems related to a method of time budget analysis which is commonly used by sociologists and home economists. Questions about the validity and reliability of "day after" estimates of time expenditure, or the use of precategorized sets of behaviour, instead of giving respondents the opportunity to describe their own behaviour, are just a few of the issues [Other problems concern the number of respondents to use in these sorts of studies and the choice of time samples. Jacoby et al. (1976) have concluded that little research has been conducted to determine which approach would be optimal in terms of reliability, validity, and meaning to consumers. Almost fifteen years later we come to the same conclusion.]. It should be stressed, however, that at this point we are mainly interested in a first impression of the relevance of problems related to waiting and delay. That is why we opt for a convenience solution in the form of diary surveys which respondents had to fill out in order to keep track of their waiting experiences.




Procedure and respondents

During the months of April and May 1991 a team of nine research assistants, marketing majors from our university, recruited 340 subjects out of their personal acquaintances, relatives and friends and asked them to cooperate in a study about waiting times. It was emphasized that participation would require that one would probably spend about half an hour each day during a one-week period in order to keep a diary about waiting experiences. No rewards were offered for participation.

When the subject decided to cooperate, an oral instruction was given to explain the diary booklet. Each day the respondent had to fill out one page of the booklet. In order to bring in some standardization, the respondents were asked to sit down for a while just before going to sleep and rethink the day passed in terms of waiting situations. For each situation a number of questions had to be answered (see: materials). A short version of the instruction in written form was also given to the respondent.

Because it was expected that a number of situational and/or personal characteristics might be related to the actual engagement in certain kinds of activities and waiting situations, at the recruitment phase we endeavoured to cover a full range of characteristics in the sample. Thus, in the respondent selection the sex, age, activity program (working, housekeeping, studying), place of residence (city, suburb/small town, rural) and household composition were controlled.

Fifty-four of the recruited subjects (16%) refused to cooperate. Ironically, most of them considered the recording of waiting situations too time consuming. From the 286 subjects who agreed to participate, eventually 243 diaries (85%) could be used for present purposes. Forty-three subjects did not turn in their diaries or rendered very incomplete data.


The questionnaire consisted of a booklet with diary pages for each of seven days. For each day the respondents had to enumerate their waiting experiences by:

a) giving a concise description (open question) of the waiting situation (e.g.: "waiting in a tellerqueue at the bank"; "at the busstop waiting for the bus"; "waiting at home for a delivery service"; "waiting in a corridor for an appointment with my boss", etc.);

b) estimating the waiting time in hours and/or minutes;

c) indicating whether the actual waiting time was longer than one had expected (on a 5-point scale ranging from "I had to wait much longer than I expected" to "I had to wait much shorter than I expected";

d) indicating whether or not one was in a hurry;

e) whether or not one had something to do during waiting;

f) and describing the amount of aggravation experienced during waiting (on a 5-point scale from "I felt no irritation at all" to "I felt extremely irritated").

In order to reduce restrictions from our side, it was left to the respondents' subjective interpretation whether an experience could be characterized as waiting or not.


In the diaries a total of 3566 situations have been described in which waiting or delay played a role. Based on 243 diaries this means that 2.1 situations per day, per respondent have been reported on the average.

These waiting experiences were, however, not equally distributed over the week as it turned out that almost one-fifth of the situations had occurred on Mondays (19%), whereas only 9% of the reported waiting situations concerned Sundays. Other days of the week (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays: 14%; Thursdays and Fridays: 15%) appeared to be highly similar with respect to the number of waiting experiences reported.

In Figure 1 the distribution of waiting times over the reported events is displayed. Here, it can be seen that the majority of situations reported concerned waiting experiences which lasted less than 10 minutes (69.1%). Even more striking, however, seems to be the fact that in almost 10% of the cases our respondents were confronted with delays of 30 minutes or more. Altogether, the results indicate that the average waiting time per day per respondent exceeds the half hour limit when we realize that the average waiting time was reported to be 14.5 minutes, and more than 2 experiences a day per respondent have been described.

Of course not all of this waiting is customer related delay. In Table 1 different waiting situations as they were described by respondents are taken together and categorized in terms of frequency of occurrence.



Roughly speaking, one out of each 4 or 5 situations described concerns delay which occurs in retail organizations (supermarkets, shops, etc.). This appears to support the results of the ConsumentenTrends study (1989) in which consumers complained that queuing in front of cashiers' checkouts happens too frequently.

As regards other services, Table 1 presents a rather gloomy picture. Almost 40% of the waiting experiences that are reported in the diaries appear to be related to queuing problems in service organizations (categories 3+4+6+7). Not all of these situations seem to refer to dysfunctional waiting, however. In restaurants, for example, time spans between placing the order and being served, or between different courses may very well serve the social value of conversation or are necessary for an adequate digestion. This was clearly appreciated by the respondents as turned out from the irritation-scales administered to each situation described: least irritation was experienced in waiting situations involving restaurants and bars (2.65 on a 5-point scale from "I felt no irritation at all" to "I felt extremely irritated") or cultural and sporting events (2.58); waiting in the other categories was evaluated as significantly more irritation-provoking (F=4.28; p<.001), although in the absolute sense these experiences did not seem to drive the respondents into furiousness, as the average irritation scores fluctuate around the neutral scale point (=3).

As regards the waiting time per category (as displayed in Table 1) we found that there are significant differences between waiting situations (F=25.7; p<.001). It appeared that the longest waiting times occurred at service organizations on appointment (mean=26.0 minutes). Less but substantial delay seems to take place when respondents have appointments with friends or business relations (mean=22.0 minutes). Shortest waiting times are encountered in shops and supermarkets (mean=7.6 minutes) and service organizations with a service desk (mean=7.7 minutes). With respect to transportation there is hardly any difference in waiting and delay between public transportation (bus, train, subway etc.; mean=11.0 minutes) and private modes of transport (mean=10.4 minutes).

Most striking about these figures is that appointments apparently do not guarantee that service is rendered without delay. Probably organisations of this kind carry the longest service process and thus use the system of appointments in order to avoid stagnation of a worse kind (e.g.: hospitals, repair/delivery services, barbers, physicians, etc.). Nevertheless, the figures do suggest that there is ample room for improvement on time related issues for those service organizations.

As was expected, the amount of aggravation experienced during waiting was significantly influenced by whether or not one was in a hurry (t=21.2; p<.001), whether or not one had something to do during waiting (t=6.5; p<.001), how attractive one rated the waiting room (t=9.7; p<.001), the length of waiting one had expected beforehand (t=16.5; p<.001) and the objective waiting time (r=0.15; p<.001). Least irritation appears to result from situations in which subjects in a queue have to wait a relatively short time, are not in a hurry, have something to do during the waiting period, are in a fairly attractive environment and in which the actual waiting lasted shorter than one had expected. Moreover, according to the diaries it turned out that in situations which are more irritation-provoking because of waiting, the respondents were more willing to complain, and actually did so (r=0.32; p<.001). Servers do seem to have an opportunity, however, to mitigate the irritation response upon waiting, as it appears that the amount of aggravation levels off when subjects get the impression that they are served in a satisfactory manner in spite of waiting (r=-0.27; p<.001). This also reduces their willingness to complain (r=-.20; p<.001).

Unfortunately, we did not ask respondents to give an overall evaluation of the quality of the service per waiting situation. As a matter of fact, some of the respondents' reactions to the question whether they were served in a satisfactory manner after all, made us sensitive to the fact that people may indicate that service personnel reacted in a correct manner once performing the service act, but this does not necessarily compensate for the time lost. Reactions like "the service personnel helped me quite well, but there does not seem to be any management of client delay at the organisational level" were observed. Needless to say that such reactions may be devastating to any service organisation, and that in evaluating service quality we should not only concentrate upon the willingness of service personnel, but also take the perceived organisational efficiency into consideration.

In the diary study an inductive path was followed by presenting an inventory of waiting times across different situations. In the next studies a more theory-driven approach is pursued.


If it is true that the overall evaluation of the service is related to the perception of waiting time by customers, then it would probably not be sufficient to change the objective waiting time and to speed up serving time by, for example, adding servers at bottleneck places or times. In addition, it would also seem to be a matter of 'perception management' to reduce queue tensions in order to fight customer dissatisfaction. Then what would be the major factors involved in the perception of waiting times?

Apart from the actual time it takes before a customer is served (which is obviously the most directly related variable to perceived duration) Maister (1985) has proposed eight "laws of waiting", each of them pertaining to a specific condition under which waiting may occur. According to Maister, customers will experience waiting times to be shorter and thus would be more satisfied when (a) they have something to do during waiting; (b) they are actually in-process of a service (or they convey the sense that service has already been started); (c) they don't experience anxiety or worry for what is going to happen; (d) they know how long the wait is going to last; (e) the reasons for delay are explained to the customer; (f) the rules for queue discipline are perceived to be equitable; (g) the subject is waiting together with other people; and (h) the service is considered to be valuable.

The equity principle in queuing has also been acknowledged by Larson (1987) who argues that fear of social injustice can often dominate queue waiting times in customers' perceptions of queues. The gist of this suggestion is that customers sometimes might prefer to stand in a longer queue as long as it guarantees that people are being served according to the principle of first come-first served.

At this point, it should be noted that all of these propositions have not been born out of any encompassing theory of queuing. Instead, the basis of Maister's "psychology of waiting lines" is rather in personal experiences and quite a lot of anecdotal evidence is adduced in support of the eight propositions. This does not make the work less worthwhile to study, however. One should realize that Maister was the first to provide a summary of causes of dissatisfaction by going beyond the mere counting of arrival and service distributions vis a vis priority rules imposed. In this study we therefore start from these propositions, and see whether they are acknowledged by customers as sources of irritation during waiting. Because not all eight propositions could be tested in one study, we selected 4 specific ones to put to test in a conjoint measurement study.


Procedure and respondents

Of the eight aforementioned propositions of Maister (a to h), in this study we tested the following four factors: (a) the extent to which people are distracted during waiting; (b) the extent to which the service is in-process; (f) the equitability (fairness) in the queue discipline and (h) the value of the service. The propositions were tested with respect to restaurant services.

In the conjoint analysis scenarios, the four propositions and their levels were operationalized as follows. The value of the service is indicated by restaurant category:

(1) a fast food restaurant;

(2) a bistro, and

(3) a luxurious restaurant.

In a pilot study it turned out that a fast food restaurant was perceived as lowest in value, whereas a luxurious restaurant was perceived as the highest.

The extent of distraction during waiting is indicated by a two-level factor:

(1) hifi-music and no lively outdoor view;

(2) for the bistro and luxurious restaurant: live music and a lively outdoor view (e.g. harbour activities) and for the fast food restaurant: music-videos.

This factor thus differentiates between few and many distractions during waiting. In the experimental design, both these factors are taken as between-subject factors which results in six respondent groups.

The two remaining factors are within-subject factors. The in-processness of the service was operationalized as follows. In the fast food restaurant the levels are:

(1) wait 10 minutes (pre-process waiting);

(2) orders are taken while waiting 10 minutes (in-process), and

(3) waiting 10 minutes for a second order (further in-process).

In the bistro and luxurious restaurant these levels are:

(1) waiting 15 minutes before being seated and another 15 minutes after ordering before the first course is being served (total waiting time: 30 minutes; pre-process);

(2) being seated immediately, but wait 30 minutes before the first course is served (in-process), and

(3) wait 30 minutes between first and second course (further in-process).

Note that the absolute waiting time differs between a fast food restaurant (10 minutes) and the other two restaurant types (30 minutes). This difference had to be made in order to create reasonable waiting times (i.e. having to wait 30 minutes in a fast food restaurant is not very plausible and 10 minutes in a luxurious restaurant or bistro would not be considered waiting).

The factor of equitability in the queue discipline is indicated by three levels. In the fast food restaurant these levels are:

(1) one waiting line (fair);

(2) multiple waiting-lines, and you notice that some go faster than others (moderately unfair), and

(3) a crowd before the counter with customers who jump the queue (unfair).

In the bistro and luxurious restaurant the levels are:

(1) first-in, first-ordered, first served;

(2) people arriving later are served quicker because of reservations (in the case of pre-process waiting), or people ordering later are served quicker because they ordered today's special menu (in the case of in-process waiting), and

(3) you have to wait for a two-person table whilst groups of four persons are being seated and served (in the case of pre-process waiting), or people ordering later are served quicker even though they too ordered an 'a-la-carte' menu (in the case of in-process waiting).





Since the within-subject factors (in-processness and fairness) are both three-level factors, a full-factorial design results in nine combinations. Each respondent has to evaluate these nine combinations as scenario descriptions. The complete experimental set-up thus consists of a 3 x 2 x 3 x 3 design, the latter two factors being within-subject factors. A typical scenario would read as follows:

'You are visiting a bistro with a friend. There is live music and you are seated at a window with a lively harbour view. From the moment you ordered, it takes 30 minutes before the first course is served. While waiting, you notice that at another table people who, you know for sure, ordered later are being served the very same course as you ordered, first.

A total of 240 respondents evaluated the nine scenarios, 40 respondents in each of the six between-subject groups. The respondents were students: 58% was male and the average age was 22 (age ranged between 18 and 32). This group reported to have ample experience with dining in restaurants: 71% visits a fast food restaurant at least once a month (27% at least once a week). A bistro and a luxurious restaurant are visited at least once a month by 50% respectively 48% of the respondents.


In the questionnaire for each scenario seven questions were asked, e.g. the acceptability of the service, the amount of irritation experienced during waiting, the likelihood of complaining about the waiting to the waiter and the likelihood of recommending the restaurant to friends and relatives. Answers to these questions were measured on 5-point rating scales.


For ease of presentation we confine ourselves here to discussing the results of one of the seven dependent variables, namely 'amount of irritation experienced during waiting'. Analyses showed that there are no differences between the dependent variables as a function of the experimental factors. The data were analyzed by means of ANOVA with repeated measurement. The most important results are shown in Figures 2 to 7.

Figure 2 shows the effects of the within-subject factors in-processness and equitability for the total group of respondents (n=240). Overall, the effect of in-processness is small (F=8.56, p<.001) compared to the effect of equitability (F = 172.67, p<.001). Particularly inequitable waiting generates much irritation (a mean of 4.09 on a 5-point scale ranging from 1='hardly any irritation' to 5='much irritation'. Also, the interaction between in-processness and equitability is significant (F=8.69, p<.001). This effect, however, only shows up for fast food restaurants (see Figure 3).

For a fast food restaurant the medium level of in-processness seems to generate much less irritation than the two other levels (F=92.7; p<.001), particularly under the condition of fair waiting (single queue; F=32.3; p<.001). The medium level of in-processness is the situation in which orders are taken while waiting. Our respondents obviously appreciate this kind of service, but more so when there is only one queue which guarantees that orders are taken in a proper sequence. In Figures 4 and 5 it can be seen that in-processness is not significant for both bistros (F=2.85, p<.08) and luxurious restaurants (F=0.17, p<.85). Apparently, to our respondents it does not matter in which stage of the service delivery process one has to wait in these types of restaurants.









Equitability is very important. For both bistros and luxurious restaurants the effects of inequitable service are particularly annoying to customers. Differences between equitable and somewhat inequitable service are small (luxurious restaurants) or non-existent (bistros). Apparently, rendering quicker service to other customers who chose today's special menu or having to wait for a two-person table whilst four-person groups are allowed to be seated is perceived as fair, whereas ordering quicker but being served the same course later than others, is perceived as unfair and provokes irritation.

With respect to the value of the service (see Figure 6), it turns out that for all levels of equitability, the irritation in a fast food restaurant is highest (F=21.0; p<.001). Two explanations can be provided. First, for most customers timely served food evidently is a core attribute in a fast food restaurant, while in the other restaurants other attributes may be important. Apparently, 10 minutes waiting in a fast food restaurant is perceived as very long and irritating when compared to the 30 minutes waiting time in a bistro or luxurious restaurant. Secondly, as was proposed by Maister (1985), waiting is more acceptable the more valuable the service. As turns out in our results, however, in luxurious restaurants the average irritation is slightly higher than in bistros, which suggests that there is a limit to the acceptability of waiting. When customers pay a lot, they simply expect timely service as well.

As can also be seen in Figure 6, irritation is high for all restaurant types in the unfair situation. This implicates for all types of restaurants that if it is very busy, restaurant management should be aware of the importance of providing equitable service, in order to preclude irritation (and complaints) from noticed unfair waits.

A significant effect of the amount of distraction (music videos) during waiting only showed up for fast food restaurants in interaction with equitability (F=14.60, p<.001; see Figure 7). In fair waiting conditions (one line) the videos in the fast food restaurants seemed to decrease irritation, while under unfair waiting conditions (particularly in case of a pushy crowd in front of the counter) the videos seem to create more irritation.

Taking all results into account, this study clearly indicates that, of the four factors studied, fairness is the most influential factor in the evaluation of waiting in restaurants. Perceived unfair waits are very irritating for all types of restaurants. The second most influential factor is restaurant type. In fast food restaurants a short waiting time and prompt service are very important. With respect to luxurious restaurants and bistros, time may have other connotations. Not all of the time spent on a diner is necessarily considered to be waiting time, since the social function of dining may require sufficient time between courses. Thus it would be interesting to study under which conditions time is considered to be waiting time or has additional functions to the customer. The least important variables, in-processness and distraction, showed effects only in fast food restaurants. Taking orders while waiting in line and being distracted (especially in disciplined waiting lines) are positively evaluated.

This conjoint analysis study illustrates the possibility of studying the relative importance of factors effecting waiting time evaluations by means of scenarios. Several more conjoint analysis studies of this kind are underway. Of course, the major problem of external validity in this kind of conjoint analysis studies concerns the fact that people read a scenario and have to think about their feelings or reactions in such a situation, without actually experiencing the waiting situation. In our third study therefore, a field experiment was set up to study the customers' evaluation of actual waiting.


Starting from the eight propositions formulated by Maister (1985), we realized that a real life setting would be a necessary condition in order to evaluate the strength of the relationship between the psychological reactions to waiting and customers' evaluations of the specific service as a whole.

In this third study we therefore selected a common queuing situation and concentrated upon queuing conditions that somehow might be of influence to the waiting experience, and thus to the perception of the service organisation. At this point we learned that the Dutch Postal Services are conducting small-scale tests with respect to a different queuing system. Traditionally, waiting lines in Dutch post offices are organised according to the multiple queue-multiple server principle. In some selected offices, however, the single queue-multiple server system is being tested. Although we did not have the opportunity to compare these different queuing conditions within one and the same post office, we were fortunate to design a field experiment in which two similar post offices with different set-ups could be compared with respect to consumer reactions.


Procedure and respondents

In the main post office in the city of the Hague a different queuing system has been established than in other post offices in the Netherlands. In this specific post office customers have to line up in one joint row (the so-called "snake line") which is split at the point where service is rendered at (four) different counters. During this line-up the customers may watch a video screen with a slapstick movie, in order to make waiting more agreeable. The post office is situated in a rather modern building in the city centre.

According to the information given by the Dutch Postal Services (head office) this post office can be compared to a number of other offices in similar bigger cities in the western part of the Netherlands. For present purposes we selected the main post office in the city of Rotterdam which is similar to the one in the Hague with respect to size and composition of the customer population, but differs with respect to the queuing system applied. In Rotterdam the traditional system of multiple queue-multiple server still exists, in which the customer upon entering chooses a waiting line which leads to one out of four counters without interruption. No video movies are displayed in this post office during waiting. The office is situated in an older building in the city centre.

During five consecutive days in april 1991, a team of four research assistants, marketing majors from our university, interviewed 192 customers (100 in the post office in The Hague; 92 in the Rotterdam post office). All interviews were conducted at a period which is known (for both post offices) as the busiest of the day (between 11.00 am and 1.00 pm). As regards the sample, a relatively large part of the respondents consequently turned out to be working people who used their lunch break to visit the post office.

Every tenth customer was inconspicuously followed to the waiting line and from the moment that the subject lined up, queuing time was registered until the customer took his/her turn at the counter. In order to select respondents which had waited long enough before being served, two criteria for selection were added: (1) At least two other customers had to be standing in the line before the target respondent joined up; (2) Waiting time had to last at least one minute.

After service had been completed the subject was asked to participate in a study about waiting times and, upon agreement, subjects were asked to fill out a short questionnaire at one of the tables in the post office.

Seventy customers (37.4%; 41 subjects in The Hague and 29 in Rotterdam) refused cooperation, most of them (95%) because they were in too big a hurry. Amongst the respondents who did cooperate 62% were male. In both cities, an equal distribution of age was attained, and most of the respondents (76%) appeared to come to the post office for financial services. No significant differences between customers of the The Hague and Rotterdam offices could be observed on background variables.

The questionnaire

The questionnaire consisted of 39 questions. Clients of the Rotterdam post office were administered 2 additional questions about the multiple queue system, however.

The first eight questions pertained to personal characteristics of the respondents (age, sex, occupation, how frequently one visits the post office, etc.). In the second part of the questionnaire subjects had to react to a number of statements by indicating their agreement on 5-point scales. These statements were related to (1) the perceived duration of waiting (e.g.: "Today at the post office I had to wait quite a long time", (2) the evaluation of the waiting environment (e.g.: "This post office has pleasant waiting conditions"), and (3) the evaluation of the service after waiting (e.g.: "Service personnel worked efficiently"). Before the questionnaires were administered in the experiment they were tested in a small-scale pilot.


A first interesting issue concerns the question whether there is reason to believe that a multiple queue system is evaluated more negatively than a single queue system. Some indications in this respect were obtained from the following statements. Customers waiting in the multiple queue (n=92, in Rotterdam) were given the statement (to be rated on a 5-point agreement scale): Instead of having to choose a line, I prefer to draw a number and be served accordingly: 8% agrees and 46% wholeheartedly agrees with this statement; 31% does not agree with this statement. Customers waiting in the single queue (n=100, in The Hague) were given the statement: Compared to the former waiting system of multiple queues, I find the present single queue system in this post office (on a 5-point attractiveness scale): more attractive (17%) or much more attractive (42%). Only 27% of the respondents finds the single queue system less attractive. These results show that a large portion of the customers prefers a single queue to a multiple queue system. One reason for this preference could be the possibility of unfairness in multiple queue systems which customers obviously dislike. If people who come in later are served more quickly, I find that: annoying (20%) or very annoying (53%).

The results mentioned above suggest that, other things being equal, waiting in the single queue will be perceived as being less aggravating and will lead to more satisfied customers than waiting in the multiple queues. Before presenting these results for the two experimental conditions, first the objective waiting times are discussed. As was described in the design of the experiment, all customers had to wait at least one minute. The average waiting time was 4.0 minutes; 50% of the customers had to wait at least 3.5 minutes and 7% had to wait 9 minutes or more. Average waiting time in the multiple queues (4.3 minutes) was slightly longer than in the single queue (3.7 minutes; t=1.89; p=.06).

Did the customers evaluate these objective waiting times as long or short? In a number of statements this was assessed (only the results of two statements are presented here). The majority evaluated today's waiting time in the post office as short (28%) or very short (42%), only 14% considered the waiting time as (very) long. Likewise, in the second statement, only 16% stated 'to have lost much time', whereas 68% did not agree with this statement. It is therefore concluded that the large majority of the respondents considers an average waiting time of 4 minutes acceptable in a post office. Of course, one should keep in mind that the respondents were probably less hurried than the non-respondents, and hurry might influence the perceived duration of waiting time. The statements correlated high amongst one another: the scale of the subjective length of waiting has a Cronbach 1a of 0.87.

Not surprisingly, a clear relationship exists between the objective waiting time and the perceived duration of waiting: people who did wait longer, evaluated the waiting more often as long (r=0.33, p<.001). Remarkably, however, this relationship was stronger for single queue customers (r=0.49, p<.001) than for multiple queue customers (r=0.16, p<.07). This means that the objective waiting time for customers in the single queue is more predictive of their subjective waiting time than for customers waiting in the multiple queue. Perhaps the in-line waiting in a single queue and the steady progress makes customers more sensitive to time-related meditation.

Apart from the objective waiting time, there is a significant relationship between the waiting environment and the perceived duration (r=-0.38, p<.001). A more positively evaluated environment seems to invoke subjectively shorter waiting times. Customers responded to three statements concerning the environment: the pleasantness of the waiting environment, the atmosphere and the lay-out of the post office. Overall, the waiting environment was judged positive to very positive by 50% of the customers, 20% was negative to very negative. A clear difference showed up between the two post-offices in this respect. The recently restyled post office in the The Hague (single queue) was judged significantly (t=2.37, p<.019) more pleasant and having a better atmosphere than the post office in Rotterdam (multiple queues). The waiting environment is therefore an important factor to be controlled for when testing the effect of queuing discipline on the evaluation of waiting. The Cronbach a of the scale consisting of the three items with respect to the waiting environment is 0.68.

In a regression analysis the subjective length of waiting time was explained by the objective waiting time, the waiting environment and the queuing system. Table 2 shows the results. The largest effects stem from the waiting environment (b=-0.36) and, slightly less, from the objective waiting time (b=0.29). A small (b=-0.11) and hardly significant effect (p < 0.108) shows up for the queuing discipline. Customers in the single queue do seem to evaluate waiting longer than customers in the multiple queues. As was noted above, customers in the single queue are probably more aware of the time passing than customers in the multiple queue. Since it was found that subjective waiting time is evaluated higher in single queues than in multiple queues, we might hypothesize that long lines may have discouraging effects, whereas short lines have encouraging effects ("it is almost my turn"). Moreover, it might be the case that in the relatively short multiple queue the customer's attention is strongly focussed on the process time of the service and hence congestions are more easily attributed to either the service personnel or to other customers. In the single queue, on the other hand, customers might be more aware of the queue management of the organisation (e.g., "They should have opened more counters in order to have faster processing"). Of course, these hypotheses deserve further study.





Effects of waiting on irritation and satisfaction

With respect to the effects of waiting on the amount of irritation and on the level of satisfaction with the service encounter, the following results were found. Firstly, 20% of the customers reports irritation during waiting (no differences showed up between the two queuing systems in this respect). This irritation was attributed more often to the behaviour of other customers waiting in front of the respondent in the line (14% reports to be (very) irritated by other customers) than to the service personnel (only 6% reports to be (very) irritated by tardiness of the service personnel). The amount of irritation is significantly correlated with the subjective waiting time (r=0.36, p<.001) and only slightly correlated with the objective waiting time (r=0.10, p<.08). Not only the amount of irritation but also the reported feeling of nervousness (on a 5-point scale) shows significant correlations with subjective waiting time (r=0.42, p<.001) and objective waiting time (r=0.23, p<.001).

Since tardiness of service personnel can be a cause of irritation, not surprisingly, the judged amount of tardiness is negatively correlated with the objective (r=-0.14, p<.001) and subjective waiting time (r=-0.26, p<.001). Customers having to wait longer thus appear to attribute this delay to the tardiness of the personnel. More surprisingly, however, a correlation was found between waiting time and the rated friendliness of the service personnel. Customers with longer objective waiting time (r=-0.14, p<.03) and longer subjective waiting time (r=-0.21, p<.001) judged the personnel as less friendly. Apparently, having to wait objectively or subjectively long, not only affects waiting related attributes (tardiness of personnel or of other customers) but also causes irritation which in turn, negatively influences non-wait related attributes of the service encounter like the friendliness of the personnel and, eventually, the satisfaction with the service. This latter effect will be discussed hereafter.

The satisfaction with the service encounter is fairly high: 70% states to be (very) satisfied, whereas only 12% reports to be dissatisfied. The dissatisfied customers are often customers who evaluated the waiting time as long: the correlation between subjective waiting time and satisfaction is -0.24 (p<.001). Furthermore, older customers (r=0.16, p<.02) and women (r=0.14, p<.03) are more satisfied with the service. No bivariate relationship exists between satisfaction and objective waiting time.

When all factors are taken together, the following model for the explanation of satisfaction with the service encounter results (see Figure 8). The parameters in this model are estimated by means of maximum likelihood in LISREL. The standardized coefficients (comparable to b's in regression analysis) are shown and between brackets t-values are given (n=189). The results show that satisfaction with the service is directly and significantly influenced by perceived waiting environment, age, sex and subjective waiting time. The direct effects of objective waiting time and queuing system are not significant (see t-values; this can also be shown by fixing the latter two parameters in the LISREL equation to zero, which causes the c2 of the model to increase from c2=2.26 (df=2) to c2=3.60 (df=4); this increase is not significant). Indirect effects on satisfaction through the variable subjective waiting time show up for waiting environment (a large effect) and objective waiting time and queuing system (both small effects). All factors taken together result in an R2 of 0.195.

The findings show that older, female customers who evaluate the waiting environment as positive and evaluate the waiting time as relatively short are most satisfied with the service. It can be concluded that of these factors, the perceived waiting environment is by far the most influential on the level of satisfaction. The effect of the queuing system on subjective waiting time is small and on satisfaction very small.


In this paper three empirical studies have been reported. At the start of our project and in the design of the studies, we were confronted with the fact that there is as yet no encompassing theory on the psychology of waiting. Our findings indicate that the issue has relevance, both from a scientific and managerial point of view, and that the development of a conceptual framework should be emphasized. Such a framework in addition to the work that has been done in Operations Research especially enlarges the number of alternatives managers have in responding to queuing related problems.

The three approaches we opted for in this study proved to provide different angles of view on the subject and to have specific methodological concerns. The strength of the diary method and the field experiment lies in the fact that customers react to real waiting situations. With respect to the field experiment, however, one has to realise that stringent manipulation of conditions is rather difficult and that the non-cooperation of (hurried) subjects may systematically bias results. As regards the diary method, the recollection of waiting experiences at a later point in time is a severe threat. Conjoint analysis as a method seems to overcome problems of this kind. In addition, one can easily present a number of situations for reaction which are hard to create in field environments. The primary drawback of the conjoint analysis approach is, however, that people may have problems in selecting a realistic response merely on the basis of their mental representation of the situation.

In developing a framework on the psychology of waiting the following results of our preliminary studies can be taken into account. Our diary study indicated the managerial relevance of the subject. Customers have to wait more than half an hour per day and this invokes a fair amount of irritation. This waiting often concerns service organizations. Remarkably, appointments do not necessarily result in shorter waiting times. As a matter of fact, our diary study suggests the opposite to be true.

In addition, when there is indeed a trend that customers' willingness to accept delay is decreasing, it is clear that a service organisation can achieve a competitive advantage by paying more attention to waiting. One aspect which should be given attention is the perceived waiting environment. Results from our field experiment show that this is an important factor.

In the field experiment, surprisingly little differences were found with respect to the evaluation of the single queue and multiple queue condition. However, customers clearly stated a preference for a single queue system over multiple queues in general, because they perceive a single queue system to be more fair than a multiple queue system. The latter finding is corroborated by the fact that perceived equity also turns out to be an important factor in the conjoint study. Apparently, in order to diminish irritation, management should pay attention to measures that preclude injustice amongst customers. The relevance of this suggestion is furthermore indicated by the observation that irritation as a result of waiting not only seems to affect the satisfaction with the service but also the perceived friendliness of the service personnel. Such a halo-effect proves that waiting has more profound consequences for the product than one would expect.

Further research into these issues is needed. One promising line of research should integrate and extend the propositions of Maister (1985) into a consistent theory. Our findings suggest that at least notions from equity theory and attribution theory would deserve special attention. These theories might provide the conceptual background for a theory on the psychology of waiting. In addition to that, notions from prospect theory (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979) and mental accounting (Thaler, 1985) may also be of use, when one is interested in how consumers react to an accumulation of waiting situations, which are part of the entire service delivery process (e.g. the frequently observed waiting situation in retailing, where consumers have to wait at different shops in the shop), or when reactions to uncertainty in waiting times are the topic of interest.

Another line of research could focus on specific issues involved in waiting. For example, the question of time evaluation and response to delay in different cultures (how important is time and how strongly does fairness weigh?); attention to characteristics of the specific environment and their effects upon waiting (level of comfort, all kinds of extra services that may relieve the waiting, physical and social sources of distraction, etc.); effects of personal circumstances, expectations and personality characteristics (e.g. impatience, irritation-proneness) on the experience of waiting.

In our opinion a queue of research papers on these questions might be the only queue that marketing really needs.


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A.Th.H. Pruyn, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
A. Smidts, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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