From theme parks to banks, priority queues are spreading for those with enough money or status. This could be a sign of greater efficiency – or just another way of splitting society.

If you’re worth a lot of money to Banorte, one of the biggest banks in Mexico, you’ll know as soon as you enter one of their 900 branches. After you swipe your credit card on arrival, staff receive a message that you’re in the building – and that you are a priority. Follow the assistant who greets you – oh no, don’t worry, YOU don’t have to queue with everyone else.

This is all possible thanks to technology made by Wavetec, a specialist in “queue management systems”. Wavetec’s clients increasingly want ways of prioritising special or high-value customers so that services can be tailored accordingly. That means special treatment for the select few.

It can be done with the tap of a credit card but Wavetec is also experimenting with other tools. For example, Bluetooth could be used to ping the phones of people walking by a business so that staff know when a high value client is nearby.

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“The technology is there, right?” says deputy CEO Tobias Bessone. “It’s just a matter of whether people are going to accept it or not.”

But that’s the trouble. Not everyone is enthused about the rise of “priority queuing” or “fast-tracking”, which sometimes involves paying an additional fee to jump the main queue. The concept is thought of as an American phenomenon but is now spreading worldwide. Queues can effectively be skipped everywhere from airport security to music festivals. Just buy a fast-track ticket or “VIP access” pass.

In 2017, Julian Baggini, a columnist for the Guardian, wrote that this represented a takeover of “money-talks culture”. While he argued that queuing has never been as egalitarian as it seemed – the rich have always been treated differently – priority queues simply mean that cash is doing what class used to do; segmenting society.

And yet priority access continues to pop up in more and more places. It used to be the preserve of theme parks, notably Disneyland in the US or Alton Towers in the UK, where a pricier entrance ticket would let visitors skip the main queues for rides. Jumping to the front at banks – or even Santa’s grotto – suggests the idea has now become pervasive in certain countries.

There may be legal quibbles over priority queuing in certain contexts, though. Constitutional lawyer Andrew Le Seur has argued that having the option to pay for fast-tracking at the UK border when entering the country seems to conflict with human rights principles regarding travellers. “Speedier and more private decisions should not be bought and sold by the state,” contends Le Seur.

Time versus money

Government services aside, priority queues often make a lot of sense, says Ayelet Fishbach, an expert in behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Fishbach says having a priority access line allows people to choose what resource they want to use to get to the front – time or money. For many people, time is more precious than money, so being able to hand over money in order to save time is a boon.

And customers who don’t actually use the fast-track option may still end up forming a rosy picture of a business’s customer service – so long as the main queue doesn’t take forever.

“It communicates good service, even if people opt out,” says Fishbach.

She also argues that, in many situations, the act of queuing increases the perceived value of a product or service. Sometimes this doesn’t quite work – no-one appreciates waiting for two hours at the post office just to send a parcel.

But elsewhere, people lovingly embrace queues. Recently, thousands waited in line overnight in London to buy a pair of trainers as soon as they went on sale – the shoes cost £180 and were designed by none other than Kanye West. Streetwear brands are increasingly hyping up the launch of new products in this way – and people seem to adore standing in line for what’s called the “drop”.

This is a form of recreational queuing, if you like. It’s camaraderie and anticipation rolled into one. The thing that makes waiting for hours to get into the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships not just enjoyable, but a source of national pride.

Any business thinking of offering a priority queue has to consider whether it makes sense for a particular brand – is speedy access something people actually want? Or could it undermine and complicate the whole experience of making a purchase?

Nick Carroll, associate director of retail at market analysts Mintel, points out that in the context of grocery shopping, queues continue to irritate customers – with 24% currently not satisfied with waiting times in supermarkets.

Various ways of evading lines in such places are now being trialled. “There is particular interest in what Sainsbury’s is pushing forward in terms of self-basket scanning via smartphone,” says Carroll. More than half of 16–34-year-olds think such technology should be more available in grocery shops, he adds.

As with 10-items-or-less priority checkouts, this is a way of categorising customers to try and improve their flow through a retail system. But the stickier issue remains when people can simply pay a fee to move faster through that system. This is what seems to irk many.

Does the phenomenon dictate a two-tiered society? It seems the answer is “yes” – but as columnist Baggini points out, that two-tiered society always existed. Does cash replacing class represent a problem? That depends on who you ask.

“These are just market forces that are gradually taking over a lot of things,” explains Dick Larson at MIT – an expert in waiting in line who goes by the nickname, Dr Queue.

He also points out that people’s experience of a queue isn’t necessarily all about how long they spend in it. More important, it turns out, is what happens while they wait. Famously, mirrors were installed next to lifts in many New York skyscrapers during the post-war era in an effort to reduce complaints about waiting times. Instead of irately twiddling their thumbs, office workers and hotel guests could instead check out their appearance. Complaints about waiting times, which remained unchanged, plummeted.

Spending a little longer in line may only be seen as unfair, then, if the experience of spending that time itself feels troublesome.

There is another way to look at all this. Take the idea, simply, that queues are old-fashioned. With technology and an improved understanding of what customers want and when they want it, an interesting question may be raised: why should anyone ever have to wait in line at all?

Tiffany Fountain, a vice-president at market analyst firm Gartner, points to the example of Apple shops, where customers who need a technician to examine a broken iPod or Mac can book an appointment before travelling into town.

“It’s kind of like fast-tracking but it’s more prevention – before you arrive at the store, let’s make sure the line is not there,” says Fountain.

Whether it’s scanning groceries while you shop so you can pay on the fly, or instantly managing bank payments online instead of waiting to do it in-branch, physically standing in a line to accomplish something seems increasingly archaic. Queues will surely never die out completely – as mentioned above, there are times when we actually enjoy them. But we probably all share the creeping realisation that queuing is very often superfluous. If X business or Y service just organised themselves better, we wouldn’t have to stand here for so long, would we?

Priority queues and fast-track lanes are perhaps just money-making schemes. But they are schemes that nonetheless respond to our nagging knowledge that, most of the time, queuing is for dopes.

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