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24 December 2007

Qu'est-ce que c'est le Mot Français pour "Queueing"?

I was intrigued if irritated by Tim Harford's solution to a question posed by a reader of the Undercover Economist blog yesterday. The reader was asking about queueing efficiency and Harford's solution was as follows:

[N]ew arrivals should go directly to the front, to be served immediately after the current customer. Queues would then be very short, because once a customer was pushed back a couple of places he or she would give up and go home. The economist Refael Hassin has shown that this rule can be socially efficient, while the economics writer Steven Landsburg has advocated its introduction for telephone queues.
Obviously, this offends my oh-so-English queuing-should-be-fair sensibilities. I can't stand queue-jumpers but equally, would rather be queue-jumped than feel I am inconveniencing someone else by queue-jumping them. For Harford to see his solution in practice, he just needs to head to France (especially on Christmas Eve) where it operates perfectly (or rather, doesn't operate, perfectly).

Rather like when I was small and we used to go on holiday to the south of France the slow way (by car, without aircon, in August) and would send me out on little missions, like getting the bread in the morning, this afternoon, my handbag fetish having been sated (temporarily, at least), les parents sent me off to get some citrons, some truffles and some mozzarella. The covered market in Cannes is spectacular - there is a vast array of really good food. Today though, it was a zoo, not least because the French generally have their main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve. Each time I tried to buy something, I would wait for a while, in a non-linear, unordered crowd, relying on the vendeur to remember who was next. However, they either didn't or didn't want to and the new arrivals would indeed get served first. As I knew I would get some more henpecking if I went home empty-handed, I couldn't abandon the queue but by the end, my blood was boiling.

So, it's all very well imposing queue reforms but they aren't exactly conducive to happy, unstressed customers... Ah, France...


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