Standing in line: how long is too long?

I knew Americans' patience was thin, but now we know how thin: four minutes' worth.

According to a story that just came out in the supermarket trade publication, Progressive Grocer, a research firm has just released new shopping data demonstrating hat 10 percent of shoppers get exasperated enough to leave a checkout line if the wait is lengthy. They polled 13,000 consumers to determine exactly when the breaking point is for most shoppers, and it appears to be four minutes. People are happy if they wait under four minutes; over four minutes, and their blood pressure starts rising.

The only exception seems to be at club stores, where an average wait time of over slightly four minutes is still considered acceptable. But after four minutes, whether you're at a grocery store, consumer electronics, department store, drug, home improvement, mass merchandisers or office supply store, it's all the same -- people get annoyed.No big surprise, perhaps, but the company that did the study was surprised at just how deep the resentment becomes. M/A/R/C Research found that 43 percent of consumers said that long lines would affect their decision to shop a retailer in the future, and out of those customers, three percent said that they'd stop visiting the store completely.

I have to admit, I've never really thought about how long I'm willing to wait in line. For me, I simply look ahead, and if it's clear that there's a problem that could have been avoided -- someone has to go check a price, for instance -- that might annoy me if I'm in a hurry. But if the line is moving, I tend not to watch the clock. But maybe I'll start bringing my stopwatch and see how clerks do. After all, time is money.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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