Queue is now a game. But not always.
In Poland, during the 1970s, you might have taken an hour or two off from work, rotating with a brother or sister, to stand in line. Everyone could have been waiting for a pair of shoes but if a shampoo were available, you bought it. There were even queue rules like mothers with small children got to go first. So people temporarily borrowed small children.
The creators of the game Queue want to remind us that while the game is “great fun, … Queue reconstructs a reality which, for the people who lived it, was no fun at all.” So players have a shopping list that is virtually impossible to locate. To win they need to outsmart meat shortages, surly salespeople, long lines and dishonest officials. They experience corruption, a black market, and frustration. And unintentionally, there really were shortages because Queue’s developers had not produced enough games.
I downloaded a free English version of the game that includes a fascinating description of the Polish Communist-era command economy. It even includes several pages of Polish political jokes about Communism:
- A symptom of memory loss: when you find yourself standing with empty shopping bags in front of a store and cannot tell whether you were going in or coming out.
- What is it: a many-legged creature that is at least 20 meters long and eats meat yet has to make do with potatoes? The queue in front of the meat store.
Or here is their quote from a Polish citizen who describes his trip to London:
- “…when I first went to London–on an official visit–I photographed sausages, ham, and meat displayed in store windows. Later, I would show these photos to friends, explaining that you really can go into a store and buy these things just like that. These were shocking revelations.”
Our bottom line? Through Queue, we can see the perverse incentives that a command economy creates. The game reminds us that when a small group of people tell all of us how to answer the 3 basic economic questions (below), we respond to counterproductive incentives. The result is multiple inefficiencies and wasteful transaction costs like queues.
3 economic questions that all economies answer:
- What goods and services should be produced?
- How should goods and services be produced?
- Who should receive the income?
Sources and Resources: I first read about Queue in this WSJ article. However, the English translation of the game says it all. Finally, to identify contemporary command economies, the Index of Economic Freedom is always a handy resource.
A Communist Queue
Walking along 56th Street in NYC, maybe a half block before 5th Avenue, I always see people on line. (New Yorkers say on line. Almost everyone else says in line.) They are waiting to enter Abercrombie & Fitch.
Usually we associate an economic cost with a line. Time wasted. Irritation. Inadequate customer service. For Abercrombie, though, it might be a benefit.
Researchers from the University of Chicago Business School concluded that total queue length conveys the value of a product. The longer the line, the better it must be. In addition, they found that the number of people behind you is crucial. If we are ahead of many others, feeling a sense of accomplishment, we attribute more value to our goal. In one example, the researchers actually found that when there are many people behind us, we also tend to spend more.
Amazing. A long line snaking for blocks at an Apple store. And most of us think about the value of the product rather than the long wait.
Our Bottom Line: Queues are all about cost and benefit. If the vendor enables us to perceive a benefit, then a line like the one at Abercrombie can become a competitive strategy.
If you just want to enjoy hearing about lines, this 99% invisible podcast is a pleasure. For a more serious read, here is the U. of Chicago paper.
And a final thought… wasn’t it the lines that brought down communism? But that is a different story.
Closely connected to an airline’s bottom line, speedy boarding means more efficiency. Here you can see the following alternative boarding strategies in action.
Front to back:
- Least popular.
- Early boarders block those who follow them.
Back to Front
- Very popular.
- Used by Continental, Alaska Airlines and others.
- Check-in time is one way to decide boarding sequence.
- Preferred by academics as one of the fastest approaches.
- Used by Southwest, American Airlines and others.
- American Airlines’ flight attendants say it creates confusion.
- Alternating back and front for contiguous groups of seats.
- Air Tran uses it.
- Back-to-front with outside-in.
Flying Carpet (really?)
- Designed by an Australian mechanical engineer.
- On a carpet with the seats drawn, a passenger stands on his/her own seat. After 20-30 people position themselves on the carpet, that group boards. Because there is no room for seatmates to stand next to each other, boarders automatically are dispersed for optimal boarding.
According to the LA Times, United Airlines believes in “outside-in” while Continental boards “back to front.” Now that they have merged, will they choose one or compromise with a reverse pyramid?
The Economic Lesson
When an airline boards people more rapidly, it is utilizing land, labor and capital more efficiently. Best illustrated by Southwest Airlines, a fast turnaround means fewer airplanes are needed because more flights can be scheduled using the same equipment. Then, the land, labor and capital that might have been used inefficiently can be allocated elsewhere.
An Economic Question: Referring to cost (defined as sacrifice), explain why faster lines benefit buyers and sellers.
Next time you are in Starbucks, check how long you stood in line. They care. To save 14 seconds, for example, Starbucks designed a larger ice scoop which baristas could use for one dip instead of 2. Still though, in a “mystery shopper” survey of “limited service restaurant brands,” Starbucks was #6 in wait time, behind Dunkin’ Donuts (4 minutes 3 seconds) during 2008. Also concerned about line time, the NYC Columbus Circle Whole Foods uses a line manager, a single line system, and an unusually high number of check-out registers.
The science of line movement is called queue management. One researcher says that we respond favorably to a wait time of up to 3 minutes. Then, though it starts to feel longer than the actual time. Also, our response can depend on what we are waiting for. People might not want to wait at a gas station but will accept long lines for new iPhones and concert tickets.
The Economic Lesson
Firms that compete in a market with many consumers and many firms are in a monopolistically competitive market. The characteristics of monopolistic competition include many sellers with a similar product, sellers creating an individual, unique identity, and sellers having some control over price. With Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts in a monopolistically competitive market, they can use their coffee, their product assortment, their image, and their wait time to compete.
During August evenings in Nantucket, the lines are long at the Juice Bar. Outside each of two doors is a line stretching along the sidewalk. Once you enter the doors into the shop, you can select among (sort of) 6 lines to get to the counter and order your ice cream.
Analyzing the experience, journalist Anand Giridharas says that forming orderly lines had been equated with “middle class behavior”. In India, traditional lines looked like trees with branches as mini lines sprouted next to the trunk and others cut in. Then, though, with the emergence of a middle class, the acceptance of branches and those who cut in was replaced with orderly single file lines. Similarly, when McDonald’s arrived in Hong Kong, they “introduced queue monitors” to replace the traditional chaos around registers.
Perhaps we can view lines as reflections of democracy and the market. Democracy dictates that we are all equal with the same opportunity cost for our time. The market, instead, implies that those who can pay deserve to go first. I guess whenever we fly, we are choosing between a democratic experience (coach) and the market (first class).
The Economic Lesson
A line represents a transaction cost. Defined economically, cost means sacrifice. Standing in line, we are sacrificing what we otherwise might have been doing. During the business day, the transaction cost of a line can be high. During a summer vacation, the cost of standing in line at Nantucket’s Juice Bar is minimal.
With lines reflecting the dysfunction of the former Soviet Union, the huge transaction costs helped to speed its demise.