In the past retractable queue barriers had been seen as a painful investment for many companies. The good old British public should be able to form an orderly queue on their own without the retailer having to shepherd them into aisles. Joe Public obviously had no manners. Many shops considered the match already won at the point of queue. If the client wanted the contents of his or her basket so much, then he or she should be prepared to wait for them. For many customers, queuing was seen as a necessary evil when shopping at any high street. The obvious fact that some customers would sometimes dump their baskets and find an alternative retailer that wasn't so busy was not too much of a problem for any retailer. In most instances the length of the queue was the measure of the retailer's popularity. The British retailer was king. Companies such as Woolworth and C & A were a typical example of this. There was no Black Friday here in the UK. The only shop sale was at the end of a season when the retailer was trying to get rid of his remaining last season stock.
A typical high street in the 1970s. Market stalls line the roads.
If I were to measure the time I spent as a child queuing in Woolworth for a pick and mix bag, I'm sure not only would I be surprised, but also embarrassed.
Saturday's were horrible for any seventies child. If you were not old enough to look after yourself, you usually got dragged to the high street to watch your siblings or even your parents trying on a multitude of outfits whilst you took a chair outside the changing room and waited patiently on your best behaviour.
Trust me, after what seemed like hours of waiting, my parents were definitely not going to be abandoning their baskets at the sight of a queue.
Queuing was acceptable and inevitable.
Competition Through Home Shopping
In the seventies, home shopping didn't really exist. The potential buyer would be sitting at home and would have to browse through a 1000 page catalogue from easy payment firms such as Kays, Littlewoods or Grattan to shop from home. As successful as they were for hardware and accessories, many parents were a little reluctant to purchase clothes for their children in case they didn't fit properly. The returns procedure, initially, was also a nightmare. Many people would not risk everything on an image of a model sporting their potential jackets or suits or even their evening dresses. So, like my family, thousands of people, every weekend, still took to the high street to buy their goods. (Only Saturday though. Sunday nothing opened!)
The impact of the catalogues on high street retailers was pretty insignificant . The only real advantage they had were the easy payment terms. Folks on tighter budgets would have no choice but to buy through catalogue companies. Families were given a choice. Either buy at the high street retailer, for cash up front, or pay a little extra and spread the cost through the catalogues.
The High street retailers were still flourishing.
Entrepreneurs started seeing opportunities to sell focussed products. Shops selling just watches or just sunglasses started appearing on the high street. The super store retailers that sold nearly everything from clothes to furniture, again seemed unaffected.
The fat cats were still raking in the cash. Queuing at this point was still an accepted part of shopping. It was not a case of whether you would have to queue, it was a case of how long you would have to queue for..
Generally the queues for most retailers, with the help of the retractable barriers, were organised and the clients in the queue were patient. If a till broke down, or the head of queue did not have enough money for their goods, it was seen as an inconvenience. Often a quiet "tut" would be the most rebellious thing heard.
Out of Town Retailers
Now we were starting to see some influence. The first out of town shopping centre was built in 1976 at Brent Cross. It was aimed at families and motorists. The 1980s and 1990s followed with the openings of several more out of town shopping centres. The local high street was significantly hit. Rather than walk along the high street visiting several dozen smaller shops, families could now drive to the centres and get everything in one place.
Again, as the high street was in free fall, the queues along with the barriers moved to the new centres.
Clever retailers caught on and were the first to put their names down when it came to out of town shopping centres. However, they would never be prepared for what was coming.
Brent Cross shopping centre opened in 1976 with 75 shops and was revolutionary for its time. The American-style centre introduced air conditioning and late-night opening every weekday to strike-hit, recessionary Britain. At the time most shops across the UK still closed on half-days during the week. The centre now has 120 stores after it was extended in 1995. (Credit BBC News)
Grocery Stores - Super Stores
When food shops got a little daring and started selling things other than food, the regular retailer was hit again. Focussed retailers were hit hardest. I remember speaking to a client of mine who worked in a huge retailer (over 300 sites) selling primarily PC games. He remarked how they could not compete against the likes of Tesco and Asda, and furthermore he was sure that these stores were in fact making a loss on the games. He was sure that Tesco and Asda considered these types of products as lost leaders to get the crowds in. Little did he know that Tesco and Asda were probably just better negotiators.
The Final Nail
Early 2000 would see the internet revolutionise shopping. Now, people could actually sit at home and shop properly with much more choice than ever. Some retailers such as NEXT quickly realised this and invested heavily in their internet shopping.
As the internet was fairly new to the layman, I recall reviewing the Next website in the early days and being more than impressed with it. They did not stop there. Offers such as "Order before 10pm and receive the next day" ensured that they stayed ahead in the retail market. Others were less fortunate.
The fall of the high street retailer would see most high streets now filled with cafés, second-hand shops, book stores and other independent retailers. Few of the big boys stayed and invested.
However, the out of town centres or dedicated shopping centres are still busy. But thankfully, they now treat a queue as a type of failure. When the queue is static the staff seem to panic and a horde of managers are rushed to the tills. Americanisms have become the norm. "sorry to keep you waiting" is called to you through an assistant's clenched teeth. Gone are the days of "If they want it, they'll wait"
Retailers now measure the length of queue against customer satisfaction.
As well as keeping the clients happy and entertained, the in-queue merchandising systems have been adopted by many retailers. Retractable belt barriers, although still a great customer flow tool, have been replaced with impulse merchandising queue systems in many stores through out the UK.
Although the belt barriers are still an integral part of the system, the belts have been replaced by slat panels and bowls. Parents are now faced with "Can I have one?" requests, rather than "Are we there yet?" questions.
For more information on in-queue merchandising, call the number below.