Apple is releasing its latest iteration of the iPhone (iPhone 15) in store on September 22nd. Now, think of an Apple Store on that day and you can already picture the scene. Hundreds of people all queuing outside—a mix of loyal Apple fans, those just hoping to get their hands on the product before others, and of course, bulk buyers with plans to resell the items elsewhere.
During the pandemic, while queuing offline and in-person may have taken a break, all signs suggest it's back with a vengeance. Thanks in large part to habits formed during Covid when social distancing limited numbers allowed in stores, queues are evolving to be more competitive than ever before, particularly in Asia.
For example, in Korea, The term "open run" was coined at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when social distancing laws restricted the amount of customers that might enter stores and luxury brands like Chanel had hinted at impending price increases. Loyal customers rushed to such stores in an effort to purchase before the price increase.
An "open run" refers to standing in a long line, waiting to enter a restaurant or shop as soon as its doors open so that you don't miss out or risk being turned away.
The nature of social distancing laws may have made queuing that much more competitive, but the habit of forming a queue or being drawn to a queue is as much about psychology as it is anything else.
People queue for the latest Apple drop
"We tend to copy people's behaviour around us. It's a survival instinct, which we've been doing for literally tens of thousands of years, says Ken Hughes, a leading expert on consumer behaviour.
"It's called human herding, where people behave in the same way as those around them very, very quickly," adds Hughes. It'll never go away simply because people like to do what other people are doing. For example, you might pass an empty restaurant. Now, it may very well be the best five-star Michelin restaurant, but it's empty. So you're gonna walk on and you'll end up sitting in a restaurant that has a few people in it because you feel better—this is herding. And restaurants know this, which is why they fill their window and street seats first to make it look like the restaurant is popular and then from there everything takes care of itself."
Hughes adds there's also a 'perceived scarcity of resource' going on.
"The laws of economics state that the scarcer the resource is, the more valuable it becomes. And by that very definition, if people are queuing for something, that must mean that it's scarce or valuable or both."
And then, of course, these days there's also a social currency element to it.
"With social media as popular as it is today, there is definitely a social currency value in having something first and having the new thing and being able to share that," says Hughes. "And that's bigger in Asia. Certainly, being able to say I was there when this happened... Or I was there when I got the first iPhone 15. It's based in psychology and anthropology and sociology, really, to want the new thing."
Product drops and the power of fan culture
Laura Mulcahy, director of cultural strategy, TRA, says that product drops and lines outside stores, aren’t so much about the product people are waiting for, but the people waiting for the product.
"The ‘drop’ evolved from sneaker and street wear subcultures. Endless subreddits and sneaker blogs were dedicated to new releases, reselling and collections," says Mulcahy. "Communities grew from shared passion and interests."
As retail shut its doors during the pandemic, that energy was no longer split between in-person and online conversations. It was channelled online.
"Coming out of that, we are seeing the power of ‘fan’ culture grow stronger and stronger," explains Mulcahy. "When we turn up to a drop in person, we are comforted by the fact that we’ll find like minds there. Coming out of lockdown, people want to connect in person again and have shared experiences. Anticipation is palpable in a line, that feels very different to a webpage refreshing."
How does one go about creating that queue phenomenon?
Got a queue? Mary Kyriakidi, global thought leader at Kantar, says that this is because your brand has strong equity that converts into sales.
"Your marketing team has done very well building predisposition among potential buyers which, at this point in time, translates into excess demand," says Kyriakidi.
Kyriakidi cites Apple as a striking example of this. "What sits behind long queues for Apple’s latest gadgets is not just good comms and unescapable campaigns, rather the brand’s deep emotional connection with consumers," adds Kyriakidi. "Their clear positioning around the three core tenets of simplicity, creativity and humanity, and their consistent expression of these principles in everything they do, makes Apple one of the most talked about turnaround stories of the last two decades."
But Apple aside, every brand wants to create that kind of fervour and demand for their products, but how?
David Allison, founder of The Valuegraphics Project, says marketing techniques that leverage the values of a particular culture, or even better of a specific target group, will be powerful because what we value determines what we do.
"Comparing the values for Asia vs. the rest of the world—you'll see three values that explain why behaviours like queuing are more prevalent in Asia: Social Standing: They want to brag about being first. Belonging: They wait in line because that's what 'people like us' do and, lastly, Loyalty are all over-indexed," says Allison. "In other words, these values drive people to queue for new releases, because it satisfies their need for those values to be in alignment."
Comparing the values for Asia vs. the rest of the world – you'll see three values: social standing, belonging, and loyalty are over-indexed, which explains why behaviours like queuing are more prevalent in Asia.
However, Allison adds that it's very important to note that the value profiles for consumers of different brands will vary widely.
"The results would be quite different if we profiled the people waiting for a new iPhone vs. those waiting for a new Louis Vuitton or Gucci drop," says Allison. "Something brands need to be careful about is trying to use a one-size-fits-all strategy in different markets."
Meanwhile, Mulcahy says that in order to create that level of demand whereby people are prepared to queue for hours, you need to know the community around your customer.
"Online connection can drive so much offline interest. Whether it be Google Maps incorrectly redirecting traffic to cause a traffic jam, or TikTok tourism spiking popularity of previously under the radar destinations. Think less about the product and more about the experience of the brand when your followers show up."
Fake it 'til you make it
Of course, it's no secret that every brand wishes people were prepared to give up their most precious resource 'time' in order to stand in line and queue for hours for their product. But not every brand or product can create that level of demand and buzz organically. In which case, should brands ever consider faking it? I.e. manufacturing a queue, renting a crowd, or even exploiting FOMO queue psychology through artificial shortages and exclusivity gimmicks in order to reap the benefits.
"Absolutely they do," says Hughes. "We're all familiar with the airlines who do it very well online. When you're booking a seat and it says only one seat is available at a certain price, that's designed to make you as a customer click the purchase button quicker. By doing that they're essentially saying this resource is about to be scarce or is a scarce resource, you better buy it now. And then the reality is, there's plenty of seats left."
But while manufacturing demand, buzz and scarcity may deliver a quick win in the short term, it's unlikely to yield long-term customer loyalty or favourable results.
"From time to time, brands engage in such activity, such as hiring fake crowds to boost their demand," says Kyriakidi. "But if this is their only tactic, the positive effects will be short-lived. The customers drawn in by fake news won’t have loyalty to the brand and make repeat purchases. A positive experience and a strong emotional connection with consumers are the bedrock of that loyalty."
For years nightclubs have understood that if you're trying to break into the market, you start a queue outside and let it build for a while. And even though the nightclub might be half empty inside you let that queue build on the street for as long as you can. Just by the very nature of the queue being there it puts the sentiment out that this product /service is worth queuing for. The queue is often psychologically used to fabricate a demand for a product that may not otherwise be there.
"From a marketing point of view, 'demand creation' through queueing and through making sure that the resource is scarce enough to drive demand is a key part of the toolbox," says Hughes. "Obviously, it's a tightrope, if you have a brand new product that isn't very well known and you force queuing for it and people don't value the product enough to queue for it and they don't queue for it, then you're stuck. So it's a dangerous game."
Will the in-person queue become a thing of the past now that so much retail is moving online?
Despite many of our purchases increasingly taking place online these days, experts believe it's unlikely that queuing in real life will disappear anytime soon.
"The connection between online communities and in in-real-life communities isn’t separated, especially in markets like Korea and China which has seamless integration of retail and community through platforms like Kakao and Wechat," says Mulchay. "Globally, the isolation of lockdown has had a huge effect on mental health. Lining up in a queue is part a story of consumerism, but on the other hand, it’s about being with fellow people. Sharing our passions and interests, asking if they could take a photo, complimenting their style. Humans are always seeking a way to connect, whether it be because of a croissant or a sneaker."