Manufactured Wait Times

Light on cinema queue
Photo By Neil Rickards

Waiting. Queueing. It’s something that we all love to complain about. Being made to wait for a table at a restaurant. Or, as a theme park nerd, being made to wait for a ride for 45 minutes in the hot Florida sun. It’s probably on most people’s list of “least enjoyable” experiences.

Therefore, we believe that the places we are going to are working to lower wait times. We assume the restaurant is going as fast as it can to turn over tables. We assume that Disney wants the most number of people to ride the most rides in the shortest amount of time.

However, it’s my contention that this assumption is flat-out wrong. I believe there is a dirty open secret going on at most American mid-end chain restaruants and at theme parks that, as far as I can tell, I can find little reference to on the Internet.

Here it is: they want you to wait. They want you to queue up. They actively and conciously work to ensure a wait happens. Sometimes, they will manufacture a wait, if none exists.

Now, I’m probably sounding like a crazy conspiracy theorist, but I believe that there is a clear reasoning to this and that it’s actually something that enhances your experience and fattens their wallets. It’s what I think of as experience design.

Story time: I remember as a kid going to an Outback Steakhouse. They had just opened the first one in my hometown and we were excited. We had heard their food was “Australian” and that they had a fried onion. It was super popular. Wait times for a table at the Outback were in the hours. People would go wait in their cars to eat at Outback. Now there are 7 Outback locations in that same town and almost 20 years has passed.

The death of a restaurant is when you hear that “it’s not doing well” or that “the place was practically empty.” The excitement is gone and clearly you shouldn’t eat at a restaurant that leaves that impression on you. So, what is a restaurant to do to make sure that patrons believe that its still a hot commodity? Make the patrons feel as though they are lucky to be eating there and are having a special experience.

Make. Them. Wait. Just. A. Little.

At an Outback in Orlando just a couple of months ago (hey, don’t judge us, it was the only thing around the hotel we were staying at), we went in on a Monday night. There were maybe 5 tables with people at them and 50 empty tables. We asked for a table for two and were told there would be a 15 minute wait. What? The sea of empty tables was visible and a bored waiter was hanging around. We sat down for about 5 minutes and then were seated.

This is an extreme example, sure, because it was so clearly visible. But if you start paying attention to the types of places that make you wait – middle market American chain restaurants – you’ll quickly pick up on this pattern. I believe this is something conciously done and sections are closed, staff sent home, just to ensure a small, reasonable-seeming wait happens, which enhances the customer’s impression of the restaurant.

Onto theme parks!

During the low season, you’ll notice that wait times for rides are still posted at 30+ minutes for popular rides. Why is that? Because many theme park rides have double tracks or loading zones, and you can easily run only one of them in the off season. It makes sense to have that flexibility. Why run capacity that you don’t need?

Except, oftentimes I’ve seen them running half-capacity when wait times are over an hour for a popular ride on the off-seasons. Why would they do this? The cost of staffing the other track is low, as their workers are typically low skilled and not terribly expensive. In fact, there are usually one or two skilled workers operating a ride in the control room… and the same number of them are required for one track as two!

I believe that since theme parks make so much money from hotels and food, that they want you to need more than one day to ride all the rides. This is pretty clear in the multi-day pricing that they are basically trying to tempt you to stay in the resorts as long as possible. Adding a day to a ticket is usually a very small price. A one day ticket to Walt Disney World is $99. A 10 day ticket is priced at $35/day. They want you to stay!

If a family came and spent 10 days at the parks, then went back home and reported that they did all the rides in one day and that it was empty and that the rides were really unpopular, then the neighbor will book accordingly. If they come back saying it took 5 days to get through the rides and the waits were really long and that they had to break up their days… that will encourage others to book longer tickets too.

Perceived scaricity is a powerful design tool. Websites often use this. Remember having to wait to get access to Gmail? I do! You added your name to a list and they sent out invites that everyone was clambering for. It worked! Gmail is now by far the most popular and well loved email system. Sure, it’s partly due to good design and interface, but that’s not all.

Ensuring scarcity of supply is a drug to users. People want to feel special, valuable, and feel like they’ve ‘earned’ what they get and experience. They want to work for it.

Not only do these techniques increase the perceived scarcity of the luxury good, but they also have a clear Bandwagon Effect. That is, people tend to like things that other people like.

Hampton headHampton Catlin is the creator of Sass, Haml, Tritium, and Wikipedia mobile. He’s one part back end developer, one part startup leader, and one part chaos monky. He’s also CEO of rarebit, which he co-founded with his husband. He speaks at a lot of conferences, writes a lot of code, and spends way too much time on Twitter at @hcatlin.