Queue-busting apps will give you more time

There are few, if any, more inefficient or infuriating uses of our time than standing in queues.

In an age where we can instantly gratify our tiniest needs or wishes, lining up to buy food and other products can seem like the most painful of anachronisms. Thankfully, we will be doing less of it this year.

A number of businesses large and small across several fields are introducing queue-fighting apps that allow customers to make better use of their time. And the more of these apps that make it out into businesses, the less tolerant we are going to be of those that don’t offer a similar service.

The biggest effort in queue-busting comes from Starbucks, the ubiquitous Seattle-based coffee chain. The company began testing a smartphone app in late 2014 that lets customers order coffee ahead of their arrival. The app is now being introduced on a country-by-country basis.

Users can browse a menu and assemble an order on their phone, then send it to the nearest Starbucks store. The order is ready for pickup within a few minutes and the transaction is automatically charged to the customer’s account.

It’s like the Uber of coffee – an incredibly simple system that customers love because it saves them from the boredom of queues. It also makes them feel like celebrities since they can saunter past an inevitably long queue, grab their coffee and leave, all in a matter of seconds.

It’s a self-advertising feature, because patrons in line who witness the quick pickups will inevitably investigate how they too can avoid the wait on their next visit.

Starbucks made the feature available in all its 7,400 outlets in the US last year, then began to introduce it in the United Kingdom and Canada in the autumn. The company, which is considering additional countries this year, said the app is driving new business. Mobile transactions now account for more than 20 per cent of all in-store sales and have contributed to a four per cent increase in foot traffic, Starbucks says.

The Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz has called this move to mobile a “seismic shift”, which is why other large restaurant chains are getting into the game. McDonald’s launched a similar app in Austria in 2014 and is testing it in the US. The burrito chain Chipotle offers an order-ahead service, as does its rival Taco Bell.

It’s not just big chains, either. Third-party apps such as OrderAhead in the US and Maegan in Canada are enabling smaller, independent restaurants to offer similar technological features. Customers can book tables, browse menus and order ahead, with payment handled automatically.

Movie theatres are also joining in. AMC and Regal Entertainment, the two largest US chains, are rolling out apps that let patrons remotely order their popcorn and drinks, for pickup at dedicated counters. The credit card company Mastercard, meanwhile, has implemented its QkR app for everything from ordering hot dogs in advance at golf tournaments in Florida to cafeteria lunches in Australian schools.

Retailers are also adopting the technology, with Apple and Best Buy enabling in-store pickups of items that customers can order on their phones.

The rationale for shops to adopt such technology is clear. While long queues can be a sign of a thriving business, they also may result in lost sales as customers get frustrated and leave – and possibly stay away for good.

From the consumer’s perspective, the disparate queue-busting efforts will have a cumulative toll on the psyche. Similar to the network effect, where the usefulness of a new technology for each individual increases as more people adopt it, the ability to order ahead and skip queues is going to make us all less tolerant of them in the first place.

As more and more restaurants, retailers and other service providers offer consumers the ability to plan ahead and make better use of their precious time, the anachronism of standing in a queue is going to feel progressively more inefficient and infuriating.

As Jordan Carter, the executive director of consumer trends tracking firm NPD Group Canada, puts it, there is going to be only one kind of outlet for whom mobile ordering doesn’t make sense: “Companies that are going to go out of business.”

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.


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