In search of a silver lineup

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2008, 12:00am

If death and tax are unavoidable, the same could be said for queuing. Queuing is entrenched in every facet of modern living. We queue for buses, trains, bank machines, supermarket checkouts, movie tickets, marriage certificates, travel visas, new flats and even initial public offerings.

The list can run on and on.

We are aware that a large part of our lives is simply wasted in queues and yet there is a public consensus that it is a cardinal rule that if we want to have a peaceful and orderly society we must stick to the practice of lining up patiently for whatever it is we want.

Few of us relish the experience of queuing, however. In an age where time is money, and the pace of living fast, idling in a slow-moving line is almost a sin.

So it almost boggled the mind when one saw hundreds of people forming queues days before the Hong Kong Book Fair and the Ani-Com and Games Fair in the past few weeks. Then there was the mad scramble for Beijing Olympics commemorative banknotes, which became a phenomenon in itself.

There is an unhappier side to queuing as well, such as elderly people lining up before dawn for a bag of rice, or parents and children enduring the worst of a tropical storm as they line up at a school entrance trying to gain Form Six places.

So why are people willing to suffer under the hot sun or in wind and rain, and risk crime, contagious disease and possibly even a riot if the crowd turns ugly? Why do event organisers or retailers inflict this on punters and patrons? Can anything be done to minimise all the suffering?

Sociology professor Lui Tai-lok of Chinese University does not find anything particularly unusual with the queuing phenomenon. 'Long queues are commonplace in Hong Kong. People have been used to queuing since the '60s and before.'

The motivation for queuing differs among people and situations. Elderly people queue for their free bag of rice probably not because they need it, but because they have been receiving it for years. They would feel uncomfortable if the routine was broken.

Many young people queued for the Ani-Com and Games Fair to make sure they were able to buy items they had long fancied.

Peter Tang, who managed to be among the first 10 visitors of the Ani-Com and Games Fair, said his key motivation for spending a day to queue was to buy a figure he had hoped to get. 'I bought the figure for my own collection, and I do not intend to sell it.'

Some were more practical. Ray Lau, who queued for a couple of days to buy the Beijing Olympics commemorative banknotes, admitted that he did it with a view to reselling the notes for a profit. He managed to gain HK$5,000 on the deal.

'Depending on the value of items for sale, I would probably consider spending time in a queue in future.'

When asked at what threshold of profit he would be willing to queue, Mr Lau said: 'Anything that has a profit of around US$3,000 or 50 per cent above the original price.'

Nick Chan Chiu-leong said he received HK$2,000 queuing for 10 hours for the commemorative banknotes.

'I did it for my friend, and would not engage in the same activities in future.'

To most people, it seems quite inconceivable that one could choose to give up the comfort and safety of home to spend the night in the open air just to secure a place in a queue.

But Professor Lui took a different view. 'For some people, like young people during summer holidays, the cost of their time is not high, so they can afford to spend the time in a queue. These people would probably not find it a hardship at all. They may enjoy the company of friends and the experience of gathering together, sharing their interests.'

Mr Tang recalled that he spent the time chatting with friends, and although the wait was long, the overall experience was not too bad.

'It was an experience for me. Whether I will line up again in this way in future depends whether there are items worth the effort,' he said. 'I will certainly not take a day's leave from school or from work to queue up just to buy figures.'

Mr Lau said he was able to occupy himself during his vigil. 'I spent my time reading, playing electronic games and listening to music,' he said, though he conceded he worried about his safety during the wait.

Ho Suk-ching, professor of marketing at Chinese University, said a queue conveyed a message. It gave a perception that a product was in short supply, or a service had limited duration; that one must act quickly not to lose out on the opportunity.

So potentially, event organisers or retailers may be encouraged to harness that message and encourage queues to build an image for events or products. Indeed, in Japan there is a type of service known as benriya. For a fee, a company will provide benriya - or paid queuers - to form or extend a line. A customer can also rent a benriya to do the waiting for him or her.

'It seems not customary for a Hong Kong company to put up queues as a marketing tool; at least such a practice is not widespread,' Professor Ho said.

'A retailer can simply issue a limited edition of a product, and customers will automatically rush to buy them. A queue will naturally follow.

'Building a queue may boost sales initially, but the effect is difficult to sustain.'

With a queue able to lift the image of a product or event, it's not unreasonable to expect retailers or event organisers to take better care of their patrons, such as handing out tokens or bottles of water. Other measures that reduce the boredom of queuing would also be welcome, regular queuers say.

Perhaps other marketing opportunities should be exploited, for example, putting up TV screens to show commercial messages.

At the Ani-Com and Games Fair, a beverage company did find a niche and provided samples to queuers. It saw the queues as presenting a business opportunity.

Mr Tang was more concerned with negotiating the queue faster than being entertained while he was there.

'This [being entertained] is not the most important thing,' he said. 'It would be helpful if organisers could better manage queues by, say, allocating chits, so that people would not need to queue outdoors for so long.'

Mr Tang was no doubt voicing the thoughts of those parents who queued up unprotected at school entrances across the city with their children last week in the middle of Severe Tropical Storm Kammuri. They were aware that the school offices were closed, but they still hung on in the hope that when the storm was over, they would be given priority for admission.

Under such circumstances, the best solution might have been a flexible arrangement for them to take shelter in school halls or playgrounds, even if their requests could not be immediately attended to.

Mr Lau said organisers of the Olympics banknote sale had made an effort to improve queue management, but more could be done, such as allocating numbered tickets, as happens with many businesses and government departments.

Different people had different motivations when joining queues, Professor Lui said. Despite their willingness to endure the hardship of the exercise, it also made good business sense for event organisers to improve the conditions for their patrons. After all, queuers helped boost products or services.

Better queue management should be on marketers' list of things to do in future, queuers say.