The other day, I was in the menswear section of the Covent Garden branch of H&M. It’s the one on Long Acre, I think. The menswear department is downstairs and is quite a long, narrow space. There is a bank of tills along one side of longer walls. Running parallel to the bank of tills is a set of display stands which stock sundry items like socks, underwear, gloves and lint removers. This set of display stands creates a sort of channel which is where customers queue while waiting to pay. The stand therefore forms the boundary of the queue, while also serving as an opportunity to tempt customers to make a couple of additional impulse purchases while they wait. It’s a very simple system and one which is used in many shops. I’ve created a diagram to show roughly what the floor plan of the store looks like. The grey cross represents the person serving behind the counter. The red dots are customers:
You can see that my time studying architecture was not wasted.
However, during my visit, the queue channel was not being used. Instead of forming a straight line safely within the confines of the channel, the queue curved around the far right end of the set of display stands and risked spilling out into the main body of the shop:
I assume what happened is at one point, there was no queue. A customer came along, approaching the tills from the right and rather than walking all the way along the display stands and back along the channel, took a shortcut and headed direct to the till. I don’t blame him. I’d probably have done the same, but then a second person did the same and caused this mutated queue form. He’s the person I blame for this. His actions set the template that were then followed by each successive person who joined this “queue”.
You see this sometimes. Maybe it’s a strange dent or slight twist in the line of the queue, caused by some since removed obstruction. A kind of frozen wave. The queue has a form of memory, preserving knowledge about its earlier state and the people who used it. Knowledge unknown to the current people in the who silently maintain its form for future generations of queue users, who will in turn, unknowingly pass it on to those who then follow them.
While there is a sort of beauty in this idea of the queue as a collaborative, unconscious data storage system, it bothered me for practical reasons. If the queue started getting much longer, it would be difficult for people to walk around the shop. I wanted to reset the queue and I was lucky enough to be able to do so. To begin with, I simply tried to wait it out. I hovered around, holding my items, waiting for the queue to clear completely and then I could restart it, correctly this time. However, I soon realised that the amount of people in the store and the length of transaction meant there almost always seemed to be one customer being served with another waiting behind.
Eventually, I reluctantly joined this broken queue. I felt awful. What if someone saw me and thought “Look at that fool, he doesn’t know you are meant to queue along the length of the counter. What does he think those display stands with sundry items are there for if not to shepherd the queue into the most efficient form as well as tempt waiting customers to make impulse purchases?”
The man in front of me was being served. As the guy behind the counter scanned his items, a T-shirt just to the right of the counter caught the customer’s eye. He moved from his position to pick the shirt up look at it. As he moved, so did I, slipping round to the correct position. Instead of behind and to the right, I was now to the left of the customer who soon returned to the counter. When I made my move, I did it under the pretence of wanting to examine some socks in the display stand. I had no interest in the socks. This was just my cover story. The gambit worked. Just seconds after I took my new position, and as the man in front of me was entering his PIN, a new customer arrived and joined the queue behind me.