Our love of queues goes back to the rationing schemes of World War II, but in an era of social distancing and ever-changing digital technology, does it really have a place in our future?
We Brits have developed an international reputation for queuing – so much so that it’s said we’d rather join a queue than find out what it’s actually for.
In today’s Covid-19 landscape, this queuing obsession can be seen on high streets across the country, as people wait in socially distanced queues for supermarkets, banks, pharmacies and even corner stores.
But has a worldwide pandemic really renewed our love of queuing, or is it a necessary evil? We look into the history of queuing, and dare to imagine what our world would look like without it.
Do Brits really love to queue?
In George Orwell’s 1944 essay “The English People”, he imagined a foreign observer would be struck by the English crowd’s “willingness to form queues”.
But do we really love to queue, or have we simply accepted it as one of life’s painful necessities?
According to social historian and author of Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime, Dr Joe Moran, Britain’s queuing obsession is mostly myth.
“We’re supposed to be so wonderful at it but really that reputation is built around a whole mythology to do with the British and queuing,” Moran told the BBC.
“It’s a story we still like to tell about ourselves,” he says. “We like to think it fits in with a particular idea we have of our national character – that we’re pragmatic and phlegmatic.”
Britain’s queuing obsession began during World War II
Queuing as we know it today first showed its face during the early 1800s as a result of the industrial revolution, Moran points out.
“The orderly queue seems to have been an established social form in the early 19th Century, a product of more urbanised, industrial societies which brought masses of people together,” he says.
The University of Kent’s social history and social policy lecturer, Dr Kate Bradley, says: “Queuing started to become associated with extreme hardship as the poor had to queue to access handouts and charity.”
However, we earned our internationally renowned reputation for queuing during the second world war, says Bradley, pointing out that: “Propaganda at the time was all about doing your duty and taking your turn. It was a way the government tried to control a situation in uncertain times.”
It was during these times that we began to associate queues with decency, fair play, democracy and patience, says Moran.
“In reality there were arguments and disturbances, often the police had to be brought in to sort things out and restore order. Queuing was exhausting, frustrating and tense.”
“Things that weren’t rationed would go on sale spasmodically, word would go round and long queues would start to form. People often joined the end of a queue without knowing exactly what it was for, they just hoped it would be something useful.”
Queuing during Covid-19 poses a risk to everyone’s safety…and sanity
We may like to think of ourselves as patient, courteous queuers, but most of us are quick to admit we dislike the experience.
A 2018 survey by Qudini found that 51% of UK consumers have had an in-store experience ruined as a result of queuing, with Londoners twice as likely to have had more than 10 bad experiences in that year alone.
But now, three quarters of a century on from World War II, it seems unfeasible that retailers are asking consumers to do the same thing at a time where queuing is detrimental to our health – especially with the new digital technology we have at our disposal.
During lockdown, asking consumers to line up outside stores to reduce the amount of people inside has only worked because the vast majority of retailers have shut up shop. But when stores reopen come June 15, the streets could become flooded with customers queuing to enter stores, completing contradicting the social distancing efforts we’ve been fighting so hard to keep in place.
The digital alternative to queuing: virtual queues and time-slot scheduling
Instead of requiring customers to wait in queues outside stores, retailers can use virtual queuing systems that allow customers to enter queues digitally, such as through their mobile devices.
Customers are provided with a position in the queue alongside an accurate wait time estimate, and can track their position in real-time. When it’s time to enter the store, they are called forward automatically.
This approach is being used by big 4 British supermarket chain, Asda, allowing customers to wait in the safety and comfort of their own cars or in the neighbouring area. Telco retailer, O2, has also announced plans to offer a virtual queuing service when its stores reopen mid-June, allowing customers to virtually queue for one-to-one appointments with O2 Tech Gurus.
Alternatively, asking consumers to preselect a time to enter your store using appointment scheduling software is another effective way to manage footfall. The department store retailer, Brown Thomas, which is owned by Selfridges Group, will be asking consumers to select time-slots to enter its stores in advance in order to limit the number of customers inside and create a seamless shopping experience.
We’ve had many retailers approach us in the last few weeks to talk about our queuing and appointment scheduling software, and many have said they will not open their stores without it.
Our obsession with queuing harks back to a painful period in our history, and pictures of queues from World War II rationing schemes have become iconic, but in years to come, will the queues of Covid-19 also become iconic, or will a future of virtual queuing be a more positive outcome from the Coronavirus outbreak?