I waited in line at Traders Joe’s and wrote a blog post about it

Offline inspiration for improving e-commerce customer experiences

Waiting stinks. Yes, one of the biggest upsides of e-commerce is immediate access to shop for almost anything. But once you buy that thing you still need to wait for a box to arrive. Some of the big retailers (and even a few smaller ones with the help of services like deliv) are trimming that wait time down to a few hours, but we’re still a few years away from the replicator.

When shopping in the real world, especially around the holidays, waiting in line is a guarantee. Managing excessive queues is actually a fascinating design challenge. Whole Foods shook the status quo when they first arrived in New York by implementing a single line / next available register system inspired by banks. Trader Joe's uses a similar system, using an usher of sorts and numbered flags to indicate open registers.

While waiting in the longer-than-usually-long checkout line at Trader Joe’s in Manhattan, I noticed something awesome. That tasty orange chicken was back at the sample counter.

Also, a TJ's Captain (that’s what they call “managers”) walked up and down the line casually asking if anyone would like him to grab anything they might have forgotten. Completely unnecessary, a bit peculiar, and very thoughtful. A few people actually took him up on the offer. So cool. Aside from just a nice gesture, it probably helped expedite the overall line by reducing those last minute, “I’ll be right backs...”

It's a small, simple customer interaction and another reason for me to love Trader Joe’s.

This got me thinking, are there analogous e-commerce “waiting” experiences that might serve as opportunities to wow some customers? A few ideas that come to mind:


As more and more humans move to online shopping, this seems to be picking up, especially in fashion retail.

• What if shoppers could make an offer (via the retailer) to buy the sold out item from the last person who bought it? Maybe it’s even still in the warehouse and hasn’t been processed?

• What if there was a “Must have this Item” button, with which the retailer would scour the earth and find you one, for a modest premium of course.

• What if shoppers could see their place in the waitlist line and either decide “forget it” or  maybe even pay a little extra (towards the cost of the item or maybe with a social media “like”) to move to the front of the line?

• Often, customers will never hear back about a waitlist inquiry (it never came back in stock). It might be nice to send a quick email (or maybe even a phone call to those platinum customers) saying, “hey, we’re sorry we couldn’t hook you up, but we’ve got a few things here that we think you’ll really like, and here’s a little discount.”


As mentioned above, instant delivery — though limited — is starting to address the lag between the buy button and the thing appearing. For most cases, it’s going to take a few days. Some ideas to alleviate the agony of delay.

• Updates. Do you offer shipment status updates for the journey of the package? If it’s a big ticket item that requires weeks to ship, is there a smaller related item you could ship to bridge the gap to arrival? Something even as simple as a handwritten thank you card could go a long ways towards making that wait more tolerable.

• Under promise, over deliver. Zappos garnered early fame and fans for surprising customers with items shipped sooner than expected.

• Maybe send an interim email with thoughtful related items or accessories, as in, “Hey, your new pogo stick is scheduled to arrive in two days. Nice! Have you thought about pairing your pogo with a new pair of patented pogo boots or our world famous purple pogo poncho?”

Service Inquiries

Many people have been conditioned to dread calling customer service, fearing robotic phone trees, terrible scratchy music, and surly service reps.

• Do you offer phone alternatives like chat, email or text? How quick is your response time and resolution? Do you know which channels your customers prefer? Have you tried any customer service experiments recently?

• Are you actively monitoring the quality and effectiveness of your service inquiries with a third party service like stella service?

• And for those actual calls, how good is the experience? Uline, a shipping and industrial materials provider, is our go-to shop for anything we ship. Beyond their great selection and next day shipping, an actual human answers their customer service line after one ring — no phone trees, no waiting. It’s amazing.

Lines are, for the most part, absent from e-commerce. It’s why we love it. But waiting still happens and there are always ways to ease the pain — or better yet — turn a potentially crummy delay into a brand differentiating experience, just like Uline’s no-wait policy or TJ’s line helper.

Take a few minutes and ask your team, when and why do our customers have to wait and what are we doing about it? Chances are there’s a competitive advantage just waiting to be discovered.

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