Has waiting in line become its own reward?
It’s a question that many retail experts are asking these days, particularly in light of growing evidence that those supposedly queue-worthy deals aren’t always the best bargains. Even Black Friday -- the ultimate waiting-in-line extravaganza -- may not necessarily live up to its unbeatable-value reputation: A new Wall Street Journal study found that items ranging from toys to televisions are often priced far lower at other times of the year.
And what about that other, more recent American waiting-in-line ritual: shopping for Apple’s (US:AAPL) latest gadget? Putting aside the fact that the iPhone 5 has received its share of negative notices (think the new map app), there’s also the hard-to-ignore reality that the phone was available for the same price through pre-order online. Or, more to the point, that even those eager to buy the latest version of the Apple smartphone could probably wait a few weeks without suffering any real consequences.
But that would ignore the real point, say those who study consumer trends: The shared experience of waiting is part of what’s driving consumer satisfaction, as bewildering as that may seem to anyone who’s wasted the better part of a day standing on line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In this new approach to shopping – call it “queue chic” – time wasted is camaraderie gained.
“Shopping has become a collective event,” says Adam Hanft of Hanft Projects, a New York consulting firm that works with consumer brands.
Hanft and other retail experts say that by standing in a crowd, shoppers see themselves as making the right buying decision -- a concept known as “social proof.” And that holds true even in the face of considerable logic to the contrary; a name-brand television, for example, is actually more expensive on Black Friday than on several other holiday-season shopping days, and can be found at more than a 50 percent discount from Black Friday prices in mid-summer, according to The Wall Street Journal study.
It’s not just consumers who are taking pleasure standing in line: Retailers also recognize the value of keeping shoppers waiting, say experts. That’s because waiting crowds create attention -- and that attention can translate into sales even after the initial frenzy has died down. After all, not every buyer of Harry Potter novels stood in line at those midnight-release events at bookstores.
Of course, there was a time when standing in line had a negative connotation: Just think of all those struggling Soviets during the Cold War era of rationed goods. Conversely, too much product availability -- the dilemma of the big-box era of shopping -- is probably what’s fueled the queue chic mentality, says Daniel M. Ladik, an associate professor of marketing in the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University.
Ladik argues that if shoppers believe that everything is readily available to them, they’ll get excited only when there’s a sense of scarcity – real or imagined. “I call it the paradox of choice,” says Ladik.
In the case of the iPhone 5, the scarcity is apparently real. Apple is looking at a multi-week backlog for its new smartphone. But if waiting equals buzz, there’s now something of an Apple buzz backlash. Consider the television ads that Apple mobile rival Samsung has been running for its Galaxy line of smartphones: It’s a campaign built around spoofing the Apple “fanboys” doing what comes naturally to them -- waiting in line.
Ladik, an Apple obsessive himself, fully appreciates the joke, but says the queue chic phenomenon isn’t likely to go away. “It’s a community thing,” he says of those lines stretched outside Apple stores. “There’s no other logic to it.”