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    The Clock's Ticking

    Customers who wait too long are likely to leave, and some never come back.

    By Barbara Grondin Francella

    Customers are tired of waiting in line -- and many are walking out. Worse, about one-third of those who walk, according to Maritz Research, are telling their friends and family about that bad experience.

    Half of the 1,400 adults polled by Maritz Research last year said they left a c-store at least once due to long wait times, and two out of 10 of those people said they were unlikely to return to that store.

    The respondents expect to wait an average of 3.3 minutes in a c-store, but are more patient during rush hours, when they said it is reasonable to wait six minutes.

    "We asked people how long they expect to wait at different types of establishments -- drug stores, quick-service restaurants (QSR), casual seating restaurants, banks and others. They expected the shortest wait at convenience stores," said Tom Krause, director of strategic consulting for St. Louis-based Martiz Research's Retail Group.

    Though customers expect c-store service to be quick, their frustration level compared to other retail outlets is lower. When asked how frustrating it was to wait in line at a c-store, 59 percent of the respondents said it was "very" or "extremely" frustrating, a percentage similar to the number who said it was that frustrating to wait at QSRs, but lower than the percentage who became frustrated waiting in other types of retail outlets, such as casual seating establishments (63 percent).

    "Basically, Americans are saying, 'I expect a very short wait time at c-stores, and I do get frustrated, but it's not as bad as when I have to wait longer at other types of retailers," Krause said.

    Across all types of retail outlets, one-third of respondents who walked out after long waits vented to others about the poor experience, but only 15 percent complained to a manager or other employee. "The manager usually doesn't have an opportunity to make the situation better," he said.

    On the upside, if store managers and employees recognize the problem, they can reduce walkouts fairly easily just by showing their pearly whites.

    According to the study, approximately half of all respondents cited pleasant and professional attitudes among employees as factors that would convince them to wait longer. "Simple gestures, such as greeting customers with a smile, making eye contact and apologizing for the wait make customers feel as though someone is acknowledging the inconvenience," he noted.

    Maritz found actual wait times (reported in a separate mystery shopper study) were shorter than customers' perceived wait times in the most recent study. "The takeaway is customers believe they're waiting longer than they really are, which means they are not having a pleasant experience," he said.

    The single most important factor that alleviated the impact of wait time was employee presence, when customers perceived there were enough employees on duty to handle the business.

    "Adequate staffing is an art, not a science, especially with retailers closely watching costs in a tight economy," Krause said.

    To compensate, employees should be trained to handle longer wait times and frustrated customers. "It really doesn't take much," Krause said. "Tell your employees what a huge difference it makes if they smile or apologize, then motivate them to do it. Maybe give them a bonus for happy customers or just appreciate the effort with a pat on the back."

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