A Market for Lines

dmv

I need to go to the DMV to renew my license, but there’s a one-hour wait. A potentially profitable venture would be to line up before the DMV opens, grab a bunch of ticket numbers, and resell them. Unfortunately, the DMV clerk at the door makes this impossible.

Why doesn’t the DMV itself offer a ticket-scalping service? It would provide the underfunded agency with a new profit channel, one that might even be a better option than employee furloughs.

Theme parks have something like this. Universal Studios and Six Flags sell VIP passes that send holders to the front of ride lines. Disneyland and Disney World VIP pass-bearers use an expedited FastPass lane. It seems rather cruel to the children without VIP passes, but they get to learn an important lesson early in life: Rich people’s time is worth more.

Disneyland is the Happiest Place on Earth. The Happiness just isn't evenly distributed.
Disneyland is the Happiest Place on Earth. The Happiness just isn’t evenly distributed.

For Disneyland and other parks, this is a great business model. The marginal costs of charging rich people to jump the line are close to zero. That’s $315 of pure profit, at the socialized expense of a slightly longer wait time for the other attendees. To not sell VIP passes is to leave money on the table, and Disney’s shareholders would be very disappointed.

Why aren’t more businesses doing this? The line at In-N-Out Burger is regularly a dozen cars deep. The sushi restaurant on Castro always has at least an hour wait. And I still haven’t been able to get into Tartine!

Anyone who hasn’t completely rejected the economic liberties of capitalism recognizes that, given the right proportions, time and money are fungible. But maybe waiting in line is some sort of twisted proof-of-work to signal sincerity in my desire for In-N-Out. Proof-of-work is intentionally wasteful. In-N-Out could use the extra money I spend to pay its employees. It has no use for the time I burn waiting in line.

in n out

Does monetizing the right to cut ahead feel unfair? Each person who skips to the front increases the wait time for people already in line, and the payment for line-skipping certainly doesn’t disburse to those left standing.

That’s simply a marketing problem. Premium-class airline passengers board and disembark before anyone else, and nobody complains about that. Those who complain can be gently reminded that premium-class passengers account for 75% of the revenue on cross-country flights, and if it weren’t for them, nobody would be flying at all. (It’s not like the airlines are making a profit or anything.)

So allow people to pay extra to get to the front of the queue, and make it clear that these premium-class customers subsidize your Everyday Low Prices. Those who don’t like it can head to the Chipotle down the street, which is disturbingly empty these days.

Where business owners failed to profit off their own inefficiency, professional line-standers have stepped in. A company in New York rents out warm bodies to hold a spot in line for $25 the first hour, $10 each additional half-hour. Their most popular request is…cronuts. In the Bay Area, TaskRabbit offers wait-in-line services for $23 an hour.

At $23 an hour (minus the company’s take), that’s a better gig than driving for Uber! Hell, I would stand around for $23 an hour. But what kind of asshole pays strangers to stand in line for them?

Me. And every other human who uses DoorDash, Grubhub, and any other restaurant delivery service. Paying for delivery somehow feels different from hiring someone to simply stand in line, even though one job description is a subset of the other. I wouldn’t pay a person to hold my place in line, even if the service were incredibly cheap, because I’d have to see the dirty looks of everyone else when I show up to reclaim my spot.

And that’s what’s holding back the market for lines. When the wealthy hire people to do bitch work, they don’t want to just buy time, they want to buy distance. Why should rich people be exposed to lower-income humans?

Unfortunately, waiting at the DMV is an equalizer, something that everyone must endure regardless of class. Silicon Valley would have totally solved this problem by now, if not for the fact that the DMV requires ID.

And they say we have no empathy.

Waiting for a cronut
Waiting for a cronut

4 thoughts on “A Market for Lines

  1. Perhaps people’s profit motives are limited by societal outrage. For instance, why not do congestion (or “surge”) pricing at a restaurant when it starts getting uncomfortably busy, or before — your $8 sushi plate is now $32, sorry, please come back later!

    1. Restaurants do have surge pricing though: They’ll have “special” menus for Valentine’s Day, or Mother’s Day brunch. Happy Hour lowers prices in response to low demand. But these are all predictable. In your example, I can see how a lack of predictability might piss people off 🙂

        1. A better way to put it: Your $8 sushi plate is still $8, but you have to pay a $24 service fee if you want it NOW. Otherwise, go stand in line for a few hours 🙂

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