Have you ever seen a giraffe wait in line? We haven't either. But if you go to an Olive Garden on a Sunday at 5:00 PM and see the line waiting patiently for a Never-Ending Pasta Bowl (and, let's face it, you can't eat more than one anyway) you may wonder if we're really the smartest species.

We stand in lines at times because, like it or not, we believe that waiting takes less time than leaving and coming back and taking a chance on being stuck in line again.

But there comes a point when even cheap pasta is not worth the wait and business empires are made understanding that a line can mean a quality, in-demand product or it can mean customers going somewhere else.

So how do businesses know? Time is clearly money and both individuals and businesses suffer as lines get longer and longer. Tel Aviv University's Prof. Refael Hassin, a mathematician, has been utilizing game theory to study wait times in line and understand their economic consequences. His findings, many of which turn common sense upside-down, could also turn the service industry on its head, help businesses increase profits, and make society become a more pleasant place for everyone.

Does Democracy Need to Wait Its Turn

While it seems intuitive that fairness is served when people wait patiently in line until their turn comes up, Prof. Hassin says that, when it comes to queuing up, democracy is more honored in the breach than in the observance.

"People in lines tend to think only about themselves and ignore their impact on others," says Hassin. "If I join the line and you come later, you will wait longer because of me. Customers are often selfish and ignore the effect their behavior has on others." This is why in some cases it's better to manage a queue in an unorganized non-democratic way, serve in reverse order of arrival, or conceal queue length information from potential customers, he explains.

Sometimes the lines themselves are the problem, Hassin believes. He suggests that waiting times are affected by a number of random variables, and that people who gather in a crowd might be serviced more efficiently than people standing in line. Sometimes, disorder creates its own order.

An Espresso While You Wait

No one understands lines like The Disney Co. If you have been to Disney World or Disney Land, you quickly see they keep you moving. You aren't going anywhere but you are moving. Hundreds of people queue up to go on a ride. A grocery store, though, or a Starbucks, realizes you have lots of other choices so they try to keep the lines short. What is the longest line you should stand in for a Grande Mocha?(*)

Businesses can implement systems to cut down on waiting time and decrease the number of frustrated customers who leave without making a purchase. Hassin notes that there are many solutions that companies could apply with an eye to improving customer service. An entry fee to enter a faster line is one option.

"I don't suggest that companies hire more cashiers at the sight of a growing queue," he says. "With some basic analysis, however, peak times of wait lines can be determined, and businesses can ensure that customers stay happy while waiting, by offering them entertainment like TV or maybe cappuccinos."

In an ice-cream shop, for example, an arriving customer who crowds to the display case will experience shorter waiting times for service than when the same number of customers wait patiently in line. This means that more ice cream will be served and consequently more money will end up in the till. "If there are 10 people in an ice-cream shop, on average you will be served after the fifth person if you do not wait in an organized line," says Hassin.

Hassin went on to explain, "Of course I might get served 1st, 2nd, or even last. But on average the statistics are based on human decision-making strategies: If one is deciding whether or not to enter a shop and sees many people there already, most would prefer an unordered queue –– because in this circumstance there is a good chance of being served sooner than if one was waiting patiently in line."

Hassin says his research was inspired by the lack of an organized queue system in Israeli society, which seems to functional quite well without lines. His findings are available in To Queue or Not to Queue by Prof. Hassin and Prof. Moshe Haviv, available through Prof. Hassin's website at http://www.math.tau.ac.il/~hassin/. Results of his research were published recently in the journal Management Science.

(*) Correct answer: If there are more than 3 people in front of you, go to Peets.

Citation: R. Hassin and S. Mendel, 'Management Science', 54 (2008), 565-572,