No one likes queueing in the best of times, but coronavirus has made it worse than ever. There’s more of it, as capacity limits for stores and other venues create waits to get inside. Lines stretch further, as social distancing forces bigger gaps between the people waiting. And lingering next to the same people for long periods can feel like a health risk.
As a result, more businesses are borrowing a technology normally used by restaurants to do away with physical lines. Virtual line systems let customers take their place digitally and wait elsewhere, often in their cars. Apps, websites or text messages alert them when their turn has come. Many companies are trying out virtual queueing or rolling it out slowly, aware that introducing any complicated or unnecessary technology can make the experience even worse.
Theme parks, casinos and retail stores are now using the systems for the first time or more than before. Several ski resorts are also looking into installing the technology to prevent overcrowding at ski lifts when they open later this year, said Steve Brown, the chief executive of Accesso Technology Group PLC, a provider of virtual queue software.
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Ellis Campbell, a barber shop owner in Worcester, England, designed the MyqSafe system in May for hairdressers, beauticians and tattoo parlors. But a high street bank and national pharmacy chain have since shown interest in the tech, which lets customers join a virtual line by scanning a QR code in a shop window, Mr. Campbell said.
Even day-care centers are adopting the system. Before, parents of children attending Christopher Robin Day Nurseries would pick up their children from classrooms at roughly the same time everyday. Now they join a queue online, wait in their cars, and enter one by one. A webpage that refreshes automatically and a text system tells them how far back they are, and when to enter once they’ve reach the virtual front of the line.
Handovers are more streamlined, and staff and parents remain socially distanced, said Daniel Seemungal-Owen, the director of the U.K.-based nursery group.
Comcast Corp.’s Universal Orlando Resort in Florida reopened to visitors on June 5 with measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus including temperature checks and limiting guest numbers in the park and on rides. It has offered virtual queueing at three attractions, including “Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon,” since 2017, but expanded the system across its parks to keep lines manageable under social distancing. Rides that offer virtual lines vary daily depending on demand, a spokeswoman said.
Universal’s offer is more like a real-time reservation system than a moving line, said Tharin White, a theme park reporter for Attractions Magazine, who visited the resort on reopening day. Guests are offered 30-minute slots to ride attractions the minute they join the virtual queue, but they still have to wait in a short, socially-distanced physical line when their time slot is up, he said.
“But it makes it very, very easy and convenient for guests,” Mr. White said. “Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened last year with ten-hour-in-line waits. When I did the virtual queue for that exact ride earlier this month, I had to wait about 25 minutes.”
The rollouts haven’t all been entirely smooth. Some have questioned whether waiting in a car—or anywhere else—is any more enjoyable than waiting in a queue, particularly on a hot summer day. Others have noted the vague sense of anxiety that’s caused by waiting in a queue without a visual indication of how far forward you are in it.
“It’s a bit like you’re waiting for a call to come through, and you know the phone will ring the minute you start doing something else,” said Hayley Ard, cultural anthropologist at retail agency Portas.
Nicola Eatwell, an accounts payable clerk, said she waited in a virtual line to get into an Asda grocery store in Middleton, England, for 15 minutes before leaving her car and joining the physical queue, which she said was moving much faster.
The Middleton store’s system is a test version designed to address teething problems, said a spokesman for Asda, which is part of Walmart Inc.
The supermarket’s tech texts customers when they’ve joined the queue, when they are fifth in line and when it is their turn to enter.
In normal times, the best queues give customers some form of distraction or entertainment while they wait, said Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose work on the psychology of standing in line has earned him the nickname “Dr. Queue.” But this may not be appropriate right now, he cautioned.
“Somehow I think ‘pandemic’ and ‘enjoyable queue experience’ are not possible together,” Prof. Larson said. Companies using digital queues should instead find a way to constantly communicate the speed of a moving line, he added.
The real-time updates of app- and web-based systems may be better at informing customers of their position in a line, but simple text messages may be better in some cases. The U.K. wireless carrier EE, part of BT Group PLC, has been using a text-based system since June 15 to avoid lengthy physical lines outside its stores. That lets people use it even if they don’t have a smartphone or don’t want to download a new app, said Lee Frankham, the company’s director of retail.
Wireless provider EE is operating a customer virtual queueing system via text message.
The Angel of the Winds Casino Resort in Arlington, Wash., implemented a virtual waiting system when it reopened on May 13 with restrictions on capacity. Customers were told to join a virtual line by texting a number from inside their cars. The system sent a text telling them it was their turn to enter once they had reached the front of the line.
The casino ended the virtual line system June 1 when demand for entry dropped after another casino opened in the area, a company spokeswoman said.
But in some places, virtual queues may outlast the pandemic. Christopher Robin Day Nurseries is considering keeping the tech after lockdown restrictions lift, Mr. Seemungal-Owen said.
“It’s creating a really personal experience for parents—they now can have that moment of allocated time exclusively with the person looking after their child,” he said.
Write to Katie Deighton at Katie.Deighton@wsj.com
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