Justin Setterfield / Getty Images / WIRED
A queue forming outside clothes and gadget shops used to signal that something exciting was happening: the start of the January sales, the release of the latest iPhone, or the opening of a trendy restaurant. Some people even used to camp out in queues for fun. But in the midst of a pandemic queues snaking the length and breadth of storefronts along high streets have not just become an ordinary sight — they’re putting people off shopping altogether.
A disorderly queue of people had already formed at the entrance to Sports Direct in Harrow’s town centre when 28-year-old Halema walked up, intending to buy some new running gear. But pressed for time, confused about where the queue started, and unsure how long it could take before being let in, she just went back home.
“It didn’t seem like anyone was doing the two-metre distancing rule, and they were all crowded together which made me think, oh well. I don’t want to be waiting there,” Halema says. The prospect of standing in line in the blazing heat just to get into a store rubbed more salt into the wound.
In Doncaster, supermarket employee Natalie echoed this exact sentiment. Before coronavirus, she would go into town for a bit of retail therapy every other day, but since non-essential shops reopened, Natalie only goes whenever she desperately needs something. “My idea of shopping now is standing outside shops queueing, when before you could walk straight in,” she says. “Shopping is just no fun anymore.”
Halema and Natalie are a small part of a wider trend: Britons have fallen out of love with queuing. Shopping isn’t as fun as it used to be for 64 per cent of Brits, according to a survey from behavioural insights firm Emotional Logic. Aside from fear of the disease, the main reason that put them off shopping was queuing: 22 per cent of respondents said they didn’t want to stand in line, while a further 21 per cent said that shopping simply wasn’t a good experience.
Despite being dubbed champions at the dull art of standing in line, the eccentric politeness of British people queuing is mostly fictional. “The thing about the myth of the British as wonderful queuers is that it suggests that queueing is this slightly trivial thing,” says Joe Moran, a British cultural historian at Liverpool John Moores University. “You get this sort of celebration of the queues for Wimbledon and people camping out before the January sales, and it becomes a sort of fun thing. Actually, it’s not a fun thing.”
Contrary to popular belief, Brits in the past have resented queueing and it wasn’t actually seen as a polite activity. “Obviously in the war, and even in the rationing after the war, there was just a huge amount of queuing for things that people really needed, like food and fuel,” Moran explains. “Queueing would have been quite a difficult, fraught activity, a bit like now, actually.”
In a 2015 study from Box Technologies and Intel, researchers found that 86 per cent of shoppers would actively avoid a store if they perceived that the queue is too long. Like in the Second World War, the times when we are more willing to queue are when we actually need something, which is why queues for the supermarket can often be quite long.
“If we have to get food because there’s no other way to get it, we will queue because it’s a basic need,” says Isabelle Szmigin, professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at the University of Birmingham. “When it comes to things like fashion items or nice-to-haves, the queue is going to put us off.”
Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, who has researched the psychology of queuing, says that another reason why people are unwilling to queue could be because people simply aren’t used to waiting in line in order to get into a shop. “You associate queues with bus stops and tubes, not with local shops of any sort,” he explains. “Any type of waiting seems very wasteful.”
In a study Furnham conducted, he saw that on average people were willing to wait in line for 5.5 minutes and were less likely to join a queue if there were more than six people already waiting. The feeling that you’re wasting your time becomes more pronounced when you can’t picture how long you’re going to be waiting in line for. There aren’t any distractions to occupy customers’ time, for example, unlike the queue to pay which has an assortment of goodies lining each side of the queue.
When you’re standing in a socially distanced queue to pay, you aren’t physically able to see each person in front of you going up to the cashier, you just see someone go into the store and don’t know how long they’re going to be in there for. “One of the ways in which you cope with the tube is because they tell you when the next tube is coming,” Furnham says. “If people get some sense of how fast the thing is moving, that helps.
Restaurants, for example, often tell customers how long the wait could be to help them decide whether they want to wait for a table to become free or not, but currently, customers can’t make that decision. Noticing the stress, network operator O2 has implemented virtual technology which puts customers into a virtual queue, so they don’t have to physically wait in line. The technology gives customers text message updates on how long the wait could be and when they should come back to the store, so they can enter it without waiting.
Virtual queueing technology could alleviate some of the queuing pressures that customers are complaining about. Halema says that the stress of not knowing where to stand in the queue and the anxiety about potentially doing something wrong makes the whole process of shopping a lot less enticing than it used to be.
What makes the queueing experience worse is that an etiquette around socially distant queues hasn’t been properly established yet. “The shops are different. Some of the shops have one entrance and one exit, others don’t,” explains Szmigin. “You don’t want to do the wrong thing. It puts you into a different frame of mind.”
Once you’re at the front of the queue, the experience isn’t much better. Shop assistants letting people into the stores are adopting a ‘command and control’ position, which Furnham says can be off-putting for people who are used to being welcomed into stores. “The person who allows you in sometimes really doesn’t understand their job. They are brisk and relatively rude and sort of schoolteacher-like, rather than welcoming. That’s equally unpleasant,” he says.
Customers can also feel like they are still in a queue once they’re inside the shop. Natalie says that she doesn’t particularly browse anymore, while Halema says that she isn’t able to browse in peace, particularly if there’s a one-way system in place. “I like to take my time when I go into a shop, especially when it comes to clothes,” she says. “But then I feel like maybe I shouldn’t take my time because there are people waiting.”
These restrictions alongside continued fears of the spread of coronavirus has caused footfall to slow across UK high streets and shopping centres even after non-essential shops opened their doors again on June 15. In the week when non-essential retail shops reopened in England, footfall rose by 40 per cent, but it didn’t last — in the next two weeks, footfall recovery slowed considerably.
Overall, the year-on-year footfall on high streets, shopping centres and retail parks is down 40.2 per cent. There are no big events or tech releases to entice people to queue for hours at a time. Instead, the summer sales have been plagued by high street closures. Kate Hardcastle, a retail analyst at retail consultancy firm Insight with Passion, says that the high street was on the decline anyway, and that we aren’t seeing queues because the demand is so great, but because the stores are limiting the numbers of people entering the store. “It was evident [three years ago] that high streets and shopping centres were too retail oriented in their offer,” she says.
Ultimately, high streets were already on their knees before coronavirus hit, and Covid-19 may have just made things worse, Hardcastle says. “The Covid situation is probably masking a deterioration that has been happening for years.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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