Monday, November 12, 2012

Making Customers Wait Can Be a Costly Problem

Gad Allon, Awi Federgruen, and Margaret Pierson have conducted an interesting piece of applied research regarding the fast-food business, with implications for a wider range of industries.  They examined the fast-food drive-thru industry and took a look at the relationship between willingness-to-pay and wait time.   They found that, "Both the price and waiting time parameters have a significant impact on the consumer’s decision.  These results confirm … that in the fast-food drive-thru industry customers trade off price and waiting time. In particular, to overcome an additional second of waiting time, an outlet will need to compensate an average customer by as much as $0.05 in a meal whose typical price ranges from $2.25 to $6. This corresponds with an hourly cost rate of approximately ten times the (pre-tax) average wage of $18/hour and nearly 30 times the (pre-tax) minimum wage in Illinois in 2005.”

Most importantly, the scholars did not just show that people value their time, but that they value their time waiting in line VERY highly.  The research shows that people strongly dislike wait time while at the restaurant, and they value that time more heavily than they do the travel time to the restaurant.   As Allon notes, "The waiting time once in line is considered pure waste.”

Some firms should pay special attention to this study.  In particular, firms that do a fair bit of customization for customer orders need to be wary of wait time effects.  Take Starbucks, for instance.  They offer customers the opportunity to customize their drinks in many different ways.  One such customer with a highly specialized order can really lengthen wait times at their drive-thrus.  I always kid my wife about her tendency to use the Starbucks drive-thru. On numerous occasions, I've hopped out of the car, walked into the Starbucks, and come back into the car while she is still in line.   You might argue that a customer faces the same risk of being held up inside the Starbucks.  However, we have to remember that the customers inside the store are different in their wants and needs.  They have chosen to enter the store rather than go to the drive-thru. That decision suggests that they may not value speed as highly.  They may intend to sit down for a few moments, or they wish to use the restroom.  Therefore, the delay in wait time is not as problematic inside the store as it is in the drive-thru.  

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