How to Form a Line: Queue Management for Businesses

How to Form a Line: Queue Management for Businesses

Optimizing queue management is the most important thing you can do for your business.


Because if there’s one thing we know for sure that customers hate, it’s waiting in line.

Customers know that some waiting is inevitable (a grocery store with no one in line at the checkout might be cause for concern about the quality of their perishable items…), but excessive waits negatively impact customer experience and hurt your bottom line.

If customers think of your business as a place where they have to wait in long lines for extended periods of time - and you aren’t the post office - people will simply stop coming to your stores.

Instead, they’ll choose a different store that can better serve their needs (i.e., an efficient store).

Proper queue management can help you optimize your retail business and increase the likelihood of a new customer becoming a repeat customer.

You need to think about how many stanchions you need, where to put them, and where to place signs that signal to customers the most efficient routes to take to check out.

We put this guide together to get you started on your path to creating a crowd control system that works for your business and improves your customer experience.


The Psychology of Line Management

What we think about while we’re waiting in line is often more important than the amount of time we spend in that line.

Here are some things you should keep in mind when you’re thinking about queue management.


There is no difference in wait time whether you have one, two, or three lines... but movement through a one-line queue system is much faster

As per a study by MIT, people don’t actually care how much time they spend in a line.

They care whether or not they ‘feel’ like the line is moving quickly.

Standing still while you’re in a line makes the wait feel much longer than when you’re continuously moving.

For example, think of the grocery chain Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s has one large line at all of their stores. While the line often looks long and intimidating before you join it, the line feels like it’s moving quickly and efficiently once you’re in it.


“Fairness” is a significant factor influencing people’s perception of wait times and their experience in your store

Studies have shown that people will wait longer in one long line than they will wait when a store has two or more lines.


Because customers often think they’re being treated ‘unfairly’ when a store has multiple lines.

Let’s go back to our grocery store queueing example, except this time we’ll use the chain Whole Foods.

Whole Foods has multiple lines, in their larger locations up to 20, that customers can choose between when checking out.

When customers experience a situation like at Whole Foods where they have to choose between multiple lines, they always try to select the fastest line.

When they perceive that line is moving slower - whether because they think the cashier in their line is moving too slow or taking too many customers from other lines before choosing someone from theirs - they believe that they’re being mistreated and report low customer satisfaction scores.


The more confused customers are about your queues, the more likely they are to have a negative experience

If a customer is confused about where to enter your line, where to exit the line, and where the line leads to, no number of retractable belt barrier stanchion post will save you.

Customers need to know how to enter a line (think signs, placement, and openings), what path to follow in the lines (more directions and signs).
Your signage should always be clear and easy to read, so a customer isn’t confused.



Queue Management Basics

Regardless of the size of your line or how many stanchions you have, there are some line formation tactics you should always use.

1. Your checkout queue should only have one entrance

Unless you have an express lane, you should have one queue leading to your checkout areas. If there are more than one, customers will be confused about which to join, and that will lead to customer dissatisfaction.

2. A customer should always be able to see the checkout area - regardless of which point they’re at in the line

Ideally, a customer should be able to see where the checkout is when they enter the line. If they can’t, they’ll consider not entering the line, and therefore not buy anything, because the wait time is an unknown.

2. A retractable belt barrier placed at an angle is more efficient than two placed at a right angle

When there are large corners in your queue, customers bunch up because they aren’t sure where to stand. Placing your belt barriers at an angle will improve the flow of traffic in your queues.

3. People in the line should get closer to their destination each time they turn a corner

Customers should never feel like they’re getting farther away from the checkout. Each time someone turns a corner, it should bring them closer to their final destination: the checkout.

4. If possible, your line should always turn right

Most people are right-handed and will naturally turn right by inclination. Left-hand turns can confuse customers.

The next time you go to an airport or museum, take a look at where the stanchion post signs are placed. Typically, signs and information guides are placed on the right as you’re entering a line.

5. Your line should meet ADA standards for wheelchair width and turn radius

Whenever you’re laying out a queue, you need to make sure it’s ADA compliant. That means making sure your line meets the minimum width and radius requirement for wheelchairs and wheelchair turns.

Check the ADA’s website to make sure that your business is compliant.

6. Monitor and adjust your lines for efficiency

Queue management is all about respecting your customer’s time. If you’re having a slow day with fewer customers, remove ropes, readjust stanchions, and open up new lanes when necessary.


Queue Layouts

There are two basic queue shapes: U-Shaped and L-Shaped.

Both types have a couple of variations you can employ if you need larger lines or multiple lines.

L-Shaped Checkout


The L-Shape is the most basic line set up and the easiest to assemble.

This type of set up works best for fast food restaurants, small retail stores, coffee shops, or concession stands.


Note: Even if you have a small business, it’s worth investing in a stanchion post sign for your queue. We’ve all been in situations where elderly or distracted customers line up in the wrong area because the entry point to a line isn’t obvious.


L-Shaped Checkout With Express Lane

L-Shaped with an Express Lane

L-Shaped queues with an express lane are popular at small banks, gift shops, airports, and in concession lines.

If you’re employing an express lane, you should purchase retractable belt barrier ropes in different colors so that your customers can easily differentiate between the two lines.

Think of the last time you flew Delta, for example. They use different colored belts for their SkyMiles preferred customers and non-members so that fliers know which line to stand in.


U-Shaped Checkout


While the L-shaped queue is the easiest setup, the U-shape is the most popular because of its flexibility.

This shape is ideal for businesses with slower service, like ticketing offices or amusement parks, and can be expanded infinitely into multiple U shapes. You can house a large number of customers in this type of line, so it’s ideal for big businesses.



U-Shaped Checkout with Express Lane

U-Shaped with an Express Lane

U-Shaped lines with express lanes allow for a large number of customers to be in a line while also providing a faster checkout for customers with fewer items or priority customers.

The express lane can also be used to accommodate disabled customers, VIPs, or for customers who are purchasing a specific type of product (like large bulk orders for delivery).




Need more help setting up crowd control solutions for your small business? Read our posts on Retail Crowd Control Basics and ADA Requirements for Retail Stores.

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