02 November 2010

...forming an orderly queue

If nothing else, we are told, us Britons are the best queuers in the world. It's part of our DNA. The technology in our head is that of a homing pigeon. When our nature spots a queue, our nurture has to work double hard to not let us join it. Regardless of the fact we all seem to really appreciate standing in line, the Post Office - the bastion which practically invented queueing, has gone and laughed in our faces – its OWN face even – by reinventing the queue. I say reinvent, but if you enjoy waiting 10 minutes in an un-orderly fashion for something you've just purchased, then Argos got there a couple of decades earlier.

Not all Post Offices have this new system, but my local branch in Eastbourne does. If you haven't seen it yet, here's how it works:

• Upon entering, you're confronted with a touchscreen machine. Sometimes a friendly member of staff accompanies the machine.
• You choose between two options: counter services or bureau de change.
• You take a ticket with a number on it; your position in the queue.
• You take a seat and await your number being called out by a female computer voice.

So, you see, the system is very similar to Argos. However, the difference being at Argos it's really, really annoying, but at the Post Office, it's great. Why is this? Simple. At the post Office, the customer is awaiting a service which one can bail out on at any time. We're the master of the situation, and people just LOVE control. However, at Argos, you've already queued once and paid for the item you're waiting for; queueing is the part of the leg work which garners reward, so to make you wait any longer feels like a liberty. Control is taken from us and we wait, prone, for our little boxed item to get spat out of the chute for collection.

The beauty of the Post Office is they have recognised the shift in today's society, how our behaviour and habits have changed and, in turn, adapted the model of how the customer-facing side of a town centre Post Office functions. Where a traditional queue once worked when people were more accustomed to interacting with one another, bumping into a neighbour and passing the time chatting, the queue today is eerily silent. Time stands still as we stand there waiting with nothing to do. The queue is emphasised, its length a reminder of how long the guy is taking sending four eBay parcels at window number twelve. Silence. Frustration. Negative focus. What's more, you're locked in. It's dead time. Wasted time. If i were a horse and you a betting type of person, then the odds on me trotting on elsewhere and being left long in the face are, I don't know, 3-1 favourite. However the new system changes all this.

The Post Office now appears to be a little hive of activity. Once you take your ticket, there are comfy red seats, smartly positioned at 45 degree angles to break any notion of queueing. Whilst you're waiting, you can kill time and take advantage of the many other services the Post Office provides, look at gifts, packaging, greetings cards, buy a scratch card at a separate counter. You're not tied down and this has been recognised. Impulse purchases are a real possibility rather than an awkward situation waiting to happen. Where DVDs were once harboured within the queueing barrier at crotch level, they're free to be perused as you wait your turn to be served.

Another smart move is the 'Banking' section. An area dedicated to the Post Office's many finance related products – mortgages, loans, savings etc. – is now redesigned like a privacy room in a bank. It actually feels like they're taking your money seriously. Whether the average postage stamp-buyer consciously acknowledges this, the semiotics won't fall under their radar. We'll quickly forget how it used to be (with old Mr Trunky in line peering over your shoulder when you're trying to talk discreetly about your bottom line) and rightly so. It's a clever, welcome service in a time when everybody is looking after their money.

So, with queueing 2.0 in live beta mode,  I think the feedback will be good. My only reservation whilst in store was what would happen if you missed your place in the numerical line? I asked the nice lady at the counter about this and she said "We have to call the number three times, but we usually only need two. If nobody comes up, it's probably because they've left."

Maybe they went to Argos?

"If you missed your turn, you take another ticket".

Makes sense to me. Just like a good old fashioned queue.