A Long-Line Expert Explains Shake Shack’s Long Lines

Photo: @shakeshack/Twitter

As students of human nature, Science of Us was naturally curious about the record line snaking through Madison Square Park as a result of a limited-time-only Shake Shack burger offering. So we reached out to Richard Larson, director of MIT’s Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals and an expert on the science of queuing. (He noted in a follow-up email that he was currently stuck in line at Newark’s Liberty International Airport.)

He explained in an email:

With regard to long lines (aka “queues”) experience has shown that the opening of a new product can sometimes have a carnival flavor, like it’s party time and gathering bragging rights for one’s grandchildren — way down the road.  Think of some of the iPhone openings, sleeping out on the sidewalk.  Think of lining up for certain rock concert tickets.  

With Shake Shack, how many selfies are being made and posted on Facebook?  The fact that the product is being rationed and will run out during the day (1,000 made, so only 2 per customer) means “Get there early or lose out!”  More excitement!  (Moscow under the USSR also often had long lines due to perceived shortages, but the excitement I assume was of a different kind.)  Waiting for a unique gourmet hamburger is not the same as waiting for an ATM or for stamps at the Post Office. People’s willingness to wait is in some sense proportional to the perceived value of the service they are waiting for. Apparently Shake Shack burgers are to die for!  So the wait is not drudgery but a fun-filled life experience, most likely a life-memorable event. How many days in our lives have such events?

Key question: How long will the line be one week from now? One month from now?  These long-queue ‘transients’ quickly tend to die down after the original excitement wears off. Then again, one week from now these one-of-a-kind gourmet burgers will no longer be offered.  Hey, I better join the line now — I’m only over in Newark!


-Dick aka Dr. Queue

So it was worth it for the experience, I guess? Hopefully those were some tasty burgers.