Unlike an auto manufacturer’s standing inventory of parts, the customers in a retail operation interact with the process even when nothing is happening. You can’t look at them like stock parts, not because it’s objectively wrong to count heads, but just because they won’t stand for it. Especially when it comes to waiting. As we discussed last week, customers flowing through a bottleneck don’t just wait passively. For a retailer, an overwhelmed bottleneck is not just a cap on the overall flow rate; it can actually reduce demand.

There are three different approaches to dealing with this problem:

Widen the Bottleneck

The most obvious solution to the problem of a resource that cannot keep up with demand is to duplicate the resource or improve its capacity. If you have room, you could open up another register to cut checkout wait times. If you don’t have room, you could send one clerk out to the line to start processing orders on a handheld mobile POS. The more obvious it is that you’re going out of the way to improve the situation, the better!

Control the Reaction

Wait times are only a problem if customers don’t like waiting. That’s why grocery stores put TV screens and magazines near the checkout. On a larger scale, Disney theme parks manage visitor expectation by displaying expected wait times, and trying to transform the queue into “the first scene in the story, whatever the story of that particular attraction is.” (CNN). If queues are an inevitable reality in your operation, why not think about how they might fit into the experience you are selling?

Reduce the Demand

This may seem crazy, but sometimes the right way to take pressure off the bottleneck is to have less inventory going through. This doesn’t mean turning customers away. It means influencing more of them to patronize your establishment at off-peak hours. For example, some gyms are using the new GymFlow app (via), to let patrons know when the place is getting crowded. Those patrons are coming around at a better time and renewing their subscriptions.

What strategies have you used to improve bottleneck capacity, manage customer attitudes about waiting, and distribute demand? We’d love to hear what works for you.