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Why shoppers who switch queues wait the longest

It is a frequent conundrum while waiting in shop queues to pay for post-Christmas bargains : will switching queues save me time?

New research by Harvard Business School has found that doing just that when finding yourself at the end of the queue may in fact have the opposite effect.

According to the study people in a particular spot in a queue were four times more likely to leave when there was no one behind them, and twice as likely to move to another line. This is despite them typically waiting even longer to get served.

 “It’s nuts because the number of people behind you has nothing to do with how long you are going to wait, but it shapes our behaviour,” Ryan Buell, an expert in service management who led the research told the Guardian.

“If we are in last place, we are almost 20 per cent less satisfied than if someone is behind us.”

The study explored a phenomenon known as “last place aversion”, which is the profound unease felt by people who know they earn less than others, come bottom of the class in an exam, or are last in a queue.

Participants were told it would take about five minutes. In reality the test took a minute but when they logged in they were forced to wait in a virtual queue displayed on the screen. They started at the back and could wait, switch to a second queue or leave.

Around one in five people grew impatient at the back and switched to the other line. with those who switched waiting around 10 per cent longer than if they had stayed in their original place.

Those who switched twice ended up waiting 67 per cent longer, it found.

Mr Buell said: “When we join a queue, we tend to make the most rational choice we can, which usually means joining the shortest queue. But if we see a line moving faster, we might switch without having enough extra information, and we can often get it wrong.”

On the back of his study, he said that people should think hard about switching when they are last in line.

“Try to separate out if the other queue is really moving faster, or if you just don’t feel good about being at the back,” he said.

Another strategy is to strike up conversation with the person in front, which passes the time until someone else joins behind you. Failing that, he said, simply don’t look back.

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