Next time you are in Starbucks, check how long you stood in line. They care. To save 14 seconds, for example, Starbucks designed a larger ice scoop which baristas could use for one dip instead of 2. Still though, in a “mystery shopper” survey of “limited service restaurant brands,” Starbucks was #6 in wait time, behind Dunkin’ Donuts (4 minutes 3 seconds) during 2008. Also concerned about line time, the NYC Columbus Circle Whole Foods uses a line manager, a single line system, and an unusually high number of check-out registers.
The science of line movement is called queue management. One researcher says that we respond favorably to a wait time of up to 3 minutes. Then, though it starts to feel longer than the actual time. Also, our response can depend on what we are waiting for. People might not want to wait at a gas station but will accept long lines for new iPhones and concert tickets.
The Economic Lesson
Firms that compete in a market with many consumers and many firms are in a monopolistically competitive market. The characteristics of monopolistic competition include many sellers with a similar product, sellers creating an individual, unique identity, and sellers having some control over price. With Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts in a monopolistically competitive market, they can use their coffee, their product assortment, their image, and their wait time to compete.