McDonough School of Business
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New Research Explains Why Customers Buy More If They Wait in Long Lines

By Melanie Padgett Powers
Photo by Drake Sorey

Watch out as you head out to do some shopping. Waiting in long lines can cause you to buy more, according to new research by three McDonough School of Business professors.

The paper, “Making the Wait Worthwhile: Experiments on the Effect of Queueing on Consumption,” by Sezer Ülkü, associate professor of operations and information management; Chris Hydock, former assistant professor of research; and John Cui, assistant professor of operations and information management, was published in the journal Management Science.

We spoke with Ülkü and Cui about the findings from their paper and how waiting in queues can impact consumer buying habits.

Why did you decide to study how lines affect what people buy? Did you have experience waiting in long lines?

Ülkü: A couple of years ago, I was at Georgetown Cupcake, which has really long lines. After waiting for a long time, I started thinking to myself, “Maybe I should get two cupcakes instead of one. It would be a little silly to wait all this time just to get a single cupcake.” This is not something that an economically rational person would do.

Cui: When I was a graduate student, on a Black Friday I went shopping with my wife, and we were waiting outside a handbag store for about four hours in the middle of the night. By the time we were let in, my wife did not find the product she wanted. But because of the time we waited outside, she decided to buy another product instead.

If you are a rational person and you found out the product you wanted was not available, then you should just leave because an alternative product probably is not going to give you the utility that you wanted. But in our case, we ended up buying a different bag, and my wife ended up not using it more than three times. But at that moment, the decision was to purchase a different product to make the wait worthwhile.

How did you set up your research study — were cupcakes or handbags involved?

Ülkü: Yes, we conducted a study in front of Georgetown Cupcake, interviewing people about their purchase decisions. We found that the longer people waited, the more cupcakes they intended to buy. But this also could be because of other reasons. So we needed to establish causality. One way was to look at the different alternate explanations for this. For instance, people may be buying more if there is a long line because long lines can be a signal of quality. To refute that possibility, we looked at people who had actual experience with that product.

We recruited about 500 Georgetown University undergraduates, most of whom were familiar with Georgetown Cupcake. This time we conducted controlled experiments in the lab to see how they would behave. Again, we found the longer people waited in a simulated queue, the more cupcakes they would buy. Some other experiments helped us refute explanations around hunger and ego depletion. For instance, we had an experiment where we had T-shirts as the products.

Why do people buy more when they wait in lines?

Cui: We came to the explanation that people are mentally accounting for sunk costs — which are the costs of something that has already occurred and you cannot get back. In this setting, sunk costs means the time you have spent in line. After waiting for two hours, you feel like, “This has been a long wait, and I would feel satisfied only if I buy something to make up for my wait.” This is what we call mental accounting — you are accounting the wait as a cost when you are making the forward decision. Because you have waited so long, you want to justify your wait.

Long Lines? Here Is How to Save Money

1. Make a plan
            Before you head out to a busy store, plan out exactly what you are going to buy. Do not leave it up in the air. Scour the store ads or website ahead of time, and commit to your plan.

2. Make a list
            Write down which stores you plan to go to and what you plan to buy. Carrying a handwritten list can help reinforce your desire to buy only what is on the list.

3. Use cash
            Figure out the approximate cost of what you want to buy ahead of time and bring only that amount of cash with you. Leave debit and credit cards at home.

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2019

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