Waiting for Hours to Buy Stuff Is Totally Illogical – But We Love It!

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According to the experts, the best explanation for why consumers wait in line just so that they can hand over money for the newest iPhone or a Black Friday doorbuster deal is that … it’s fun?

A New York Times op-ed published over the summer declared in the headline that waiting in line is “torture,” and here’s why:

Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. The last thing we want to do with our dwindling leisure time is squander it in stasis.

So true. Everybody hates lines. Or do they? Despite the largely universal loathing of lines and time wasting away unnecessarily, it’s become commonplace in society today for consumers to willingly, happily volunteer to partake in such torture, waiting on line for hours, if not days, for the latest iPhone or Nike sneakers, as well as for Black Friday sales and rides at Walt Disney World.

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What can explain such behavior? Why is it that we can gripe about lines at airports and government offices one second, and then break our backs standing in them outside an Apple Store the next, all the while there are plenty of other, far more reasonable ways to get what we want?

For the most part, consumers aren’t waiting in line for logical reasons. They aren’t there to get the absolute best prices, nor (limited edition Nikes notwithstanding) to get their hands on a scarce, highly valuable commodity. What is it, then?

Consumer analysts and marketing researchers offer this explanation, which is puzzling to those of us who try to avoid queues like the plague: Waiting in line is fun, and makes you feel good about yourself.

Wait, what? What about the idea that lines are torture, and that we suffer the “nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away” while waiting in them?

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Apparently, stronger psychological forces are at work, at least when it comes to a certain breed of shopper. “The shared experience of waiting is part of what’s driving consumer satisfaction,” according to the experts cited in a MarketWatch story. Instead of the communal suffering in a wait to get through an airport TSA checkpoint, waiting outside an Apple Store for the latest iWhatever, or camping out on a Best Buy sidewalk before Black Friday, has become a giddy, exciting experience shared by those willingly joining in.

Being surrounded by like-minded consumers, who have also decided that it makes sense to wait in line, is a sign that you’re not alone—and that your choices on what to buy and how long it’s worth standing around to buy it are sound:

[It’s] a concept known as “social proof.” And that holds true even in the face of considerable logic to the contrary; a name-brand television, for example, is actually more expensive on Black Friday than on several other holiday-season shopping days

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Since Black Friday has just so-so prices on big-name TVs, and the iPhone can be purchased without requiring anyone to wait in lines, it would seem to be pretty easy to demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes. Instead, thanks to brilliant marketing and the stubborn crowd mentality, Daniel M. Ladik, a marketing professor at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University, tells MarketWatch that he thinks lines for the newest, most buzzworthy products are here to stay:

“It’s a community thing,” he says of those lines stretched outside Apple stores. “There’s no other logic to it.”

If there’s one thing that people who hate all lines and people who only hate lines that don’t involve Nikes, Apple products, Black Friday, Disney, or video games can agree on, it’s this, from the Times story:

Perhaps the biggest influence on our feelings about lines, though, has to do with our perception of fairness. When it comes to lines, the universally acknowledged standard is first come first served: any deviation is, to most, a mark of iniquity and can lead to violent queue rage.

In the case of iPhones especially, fair line etiquette is observed and it’s always first-come, first-serve. And all who wait in line can call themselves winners: They secure bragging rights and an ego boost when getting their hands on the new gadget before anyone who didn’t wait in line.

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Then again, the folks who didn’t bother to stand overnight outside an Apple Store can also consider themselves winners, and smarter-than-average consumers — because they didn’t just waste a bunch of time standing in line.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

11 comments
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CheckinLine
CheckinLine

This is an interesting discussion and one we have been grappling with for years and I agree that it has everything to do with our perception of fairness.

Online sales eliminated the "line" but created a congested, sometimes unfair and random environment. This is why we created "CheckinLine" to replicate 'camping out' for stuff online and a fair, transparent prioritisation process. It's primarily used as a fan engagement tool (by sporting teams and brands across Facebook etc).

A wide array of applications for the system has resulted, including people lining up for free beer, movie tickets...in fact any giveaway works. We assumed it had everything to do with scarcity, but it turns out that anything 'in demand' will generate a line of people wanting it. Gamifying the process helps builds motivation and loyalty with fans and creates a sense of fun, further accentuating this article's assertions.

Great article!

bonesiii
bonesiii

So it's just like people supporting evolution with Ad Populum logic (even though logically, it was unpopular when first proposed so they don't object that it became popular). It's peer pressure based in insecurity basically. Makes sense.

I don't wait in lines unless I absolutely have to. Interesting...

A Smith
A Smith

The last time I stood in line was for a Wii for my kids, several years ago. Then I said "This is BS" and went home.

A week later my secretary called me from Target and said she saw some Wiis on the shelf. YES, 1%-er high fives all around. 

Len Simpson
Len Simpson

These are the same sheep that vote the party line.

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

I just bought an iPhone...4.  It cost me 99 cents and I didn't have to wait in line.  How much did you pay for yours?

Miguel Cazares
Miguel Cazares

I don't know? I guess it depends what you're waiting in line for. I wouldn't wait in line for a new gadget or a new movie. I'd rather wait til the coast is clear amp; avoid all the traffic. What I can't wait to get in line for is my SSI retirement checks that the government took from my income amp; I'm getting closer to start getting it back! I'm gonna be ready to camp out outside SSI's doors with sleeping bag, snacks, my iPad amp; a few other necessities 2 weeks in advance. I can almost feel the excitement already!

Pc Cobra
Pc Cobra

What does one actually gain by waiting in line for hours in foul weather?  They got the "item" only seconds before the next person.  Was that really worth the wait?  Granted, if you bought the first production model of something that gained in value over the years like the first Corvette, then maybe standing in line was worth it 50 years later.  But how many of the first iPhones or first Nike shoes are still even in existence?  These people have a "follow the crowd" and "I have to be ahead of the Jones'" attitude that is typical of the uneducated.  Mind you a person can have a Phd and still be uneducated in common sense.  Or a millionaire politician uneducated in how the rest of the world lives below the $50k/year level.  Will that item the person bought as the first in line be worth anything more than the one the second or millionth person bought?  Will it perform better?  Will it somehow look better?  Five years from now someone will probably try to sell their iPhone 5 on Ebay asking for an astronomical price for an outdated phone, just claiming it was the first one sold on opening day.  And some fool will probably buy it without even seeing any proof it was the first one sold.  I see the lines outside Apple and Nike and on Black Friday and just marvel at the amount of idiocy located all in one place.

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

There are lots of needy people on this earth - and it has little to do with income status. They are longing to be part of something, to have a little story to tell, "I'm one of the first to get the new iPhone." I advise these people to read Alan Watts - but only if they have time.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

to be part of something, to have a little story to tell

That sums it up nicely. Probably the same dynamic is being displayed by those of us who participate in this forum. People are basicly the same, and basicly act the same.

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

We love it? We? We, as in you and me? Here is my take, SPEAK FOR YOURSELF.

I never wait to buy something, at best I wait 5 min online at the grocery or general store cashier, cause I don't get a choice and in general it 's a very short wait compared to the shopping time .. food is a must and with two kids, you really focus on efficient shopping, waiting at the cashier is never fun. 

So, for any other kind of item .. if you make me wait, I am out of the door, I did already in several occasions, just walked away ... I never wait to reach the cashier line to decide if it's too long or not .. if I see a crowded line .. am out of there.

Trust me, am not alone

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