How Long Are You Willing to Stand in Line? Are You Willing to Walk Away?

Time is Money att2

Have you ever been walking down the street, only to stumble upon a line out the door and around the corner, usually at a popular gelato shop or a famous sandwich place?  Naturally, if you haven’t tried whatever is being sold (for me, it’s usually food) your curiosity takes over, and you ask yourself, “What’s all the fuss about?  Is it that good?  Is it worth standing in line and waiting for?  How long is this line?”

My curiosity usually gets the better of me, and in many cases when I am on vacation or I have the time, I’ve gotten in line just to see for myself what in the world people are queuing up for.  Sometimes, it’s worth the wait.  But I’ve also learned that I have to be careful about picking and choosing which spots to stand in line for, and that I always need to give myself a cutoff or a walk away point.

This past weekend I was in Vancouver BC, and DH and I went with another couple to sample one of the superior ramen establishments that we just can’t seem to get our hands on here in Seattle.  The line at this place was still fairly sizable, even though it was already well past 2pm on a hot summer day.  But the line was moving, and so we only ended up standing in line for about 30 minutes, which for this shop, is pretty short.  Our friends told us that the line is usually at least an hour or more during the lunch rush.  All in all, a successful queuing episode, and some of the best shiho ramen I’ve had in a while.  After we finished, we observed that the best time to come when the line is shortest: 3pm, when no one wants to eat ramen.  Of course!

Shiho Ramen att

In microeconomics, there is a concept called Willingness To Pay (WTP) and describes the highest price that a buyer is willing to pay for a certain item.  If the buyer’s WTP is higher than the market price for said item, then a transaction is likely to take place.  WTP is sometimes also known as a reservation price or walk away price in negotiations.

I started thinking about the concept of WTP because I think you can make a very strong argument that time is a good proxy for money.  (In our capitalist society, time equals money.)  So you could argue the Willingness To Pay is in essence the same concept to my term, the Willingness to Wait (WTW.)  Everyone has a different WTP that is probably closely and often times inversely correlated to his or her WTW.  Often times, the higher your WTP is, the lower your threshold or your WTW, and vice-versa.

We all know and understand the concept of opportunity cost, and Ben Franklin’s quote that “time is money” simply boils it down.  (And is it a coincidence that he’s on the US$100 bill?)  But I came across another quote from an academic named Charles Stanley Ross that I think perfectly summarizes the related concept about our individual willingness to wait:

“Our willingness to wait reveals the value we place on the object we’re waiting for.”

Oh so true.  I’m willing to stand in a substantial line for relatively delicious-but-affordable food, but I’m not willing to stand in the same line to say, get into a movie on opening day, or to get tickets to a sporting event or concert.  I personally don’t value movies and concerts as much as I do good, cheap-ish food.

Some of the longest lines I’ve queued in have all been for some sort of food or snack.  So it’s obvious where my priorities lie and what I personally value.  And generally long lines signify good casual food for a reasonable price.  Otherwise, you’d be dining in a restaurant that takes reservations, etc. and paying a much higher price with higher barriers to entry.  But often times, we don’t factor in our time into the prices of the food item we are purchasing.  That amazing $10 bowl of ramen you’ve had to wait for 1.5 hours to eat?  The price is probably more than the actual $10 you paid if you were to incorporate your lost time (or the opportunity cost of lost time.)

So what’s the downside of waiting in line for delicious-but-affordable food?  One danger (besides hallucinatory behavior, if you’re too hungry at the beginning of the ordeal,) is the beginning of dangerous thinking.  I’m talking about the Sunk Cost Fallacy.  It’s sometimes known as “throwing away good money after bad” and more often than not, it can be applied to how we use our time and other resources after we make a poor decision.

A few months back, I came across a terrific article in The Atlantic that spoke directly about the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and how we as humans have a hard time moving on, especially when we’ve sunk in considerable time and resource into something that isn’t working out the way we expect.

Sunk costs are the investments that you’ve put into something that you can’t get back out. They are the years you spent training for a profession you hate, or waiting for your commitment-phobic boyfriend to propose. They are the thousands of dollars you spent on redecorating your living room, only to find that you hate living in it. Once you’ve realized that you probably won’t succeed, or that you are unhappy with the results, it shouldn’t matter how much time and effort you’ve already put into something. If your job or your boyfriend have taken up some of the best years of your life, it doesn’t make sense to let them use up the years you’ve got left. An ugly living room is an ugly living room, no matter how much money you spent making it so

.… [P]eople are generally loss-averse. Putting in a lot, only to end up with nothing to show for it, is just too awful for most of us to seriously consider. The problem is one of focus. We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, instead of focusing on the costs of not moving on: more wasted time and effort, more unhappiness, and more missed opportunities.

I’ll tell you another personal story about the Sunk Cost Fallacy as it relates to one of the busiest and most popular restaurants here in Seattle that I will never frequent again on a Saturday night.  My parents wanted to take DH and I out.  I suggested one of my favorite places, The Walrus and the Carpenter, since it serves great seafood at reasonable prices.  I knew the wait was going to be insane, and so we stopped into the restaurant at 5pm to leave our names.  Big mistake on a Saturday night, as the restaurant opens at 4pm, and the outside patio area was not open, reducing their dining area by 50%.  The hostess told us it was going to be a 2-hour wait.  We said no problem, and went to another bar to wait out the 2 hrs.  We came back at 7pm, and it was insanity.  Of course there is no bar area and so we stood outside in the lobby for another 45 minutes, and finally moved into the 3 stools they had available.  By now it was almost 8pm, and we had been waiting for our table for nearly 3 hours.  At 8:20, we were finally seated.

And while the food was quite good, the entire evening was pretty much deflated because we waited almost 3.5 hours for a table, and we were starving.  We probably would have had a much more enjoyable evening had we thrown in the towel early, and just ate an early dinner at any of the other wonderful restaurants in Ballard.  But no, I was being stubborn (“We’ve already waited 2.5 hours, and we can’t just give up now!”) and DH and my poor parents had to suffer the consequences.

Sometimes walking away is the best decision you will ever make.  As in the wise words of Elaine Benes, “I say we leave now, we go to Skyburger and we scarf em down!”

I couldn’t agree with her more.  (And I can’t have movie popcorn for dinner, either.  I’d also rather lick the food off the floor!)

So what about you?  What are some things that you are willing to stand in line for? What’s the longest time you’ve lined up for food, and was it worth the wait?

Happy Friday and may you not wait in absurdly long lines this weekend!