The waiting game: It's not always a bad thing

Americans don't wait — at least not happily.

In this faster-is-better world of instant communication and immediate gratification, we're an impatient nation. Why mail a letter when you can e-mail or instant message? Why commit to months of exercise and diet when plastic surgery does the trick?

But sometimes the inevitable occurs and delays are forced upon us: our favorite restaurant is busy and we must wait for a table. We order a book online, knowing it won't arrive in the mail for a day or two. We purchase groceries and must drive home and prepare the food before we can eat it.

When our patience is put to the test, how do we react? Does waiting affect our enjoyment of what we consume?

These questions are probed in recent research by W. P. Carey marketing professors Stephen Nowlis, Naomi Mandel and Deborah Brown McCabe. Their paper examines whether we enjoy products more when we can have them immediately or after an imposed delay.

As much as we hate to wait, it seems that waiting has its benefits — sometimes.

"Consumers enjoy products more after they have to wait for them, but only when they're pleasant products, such as chocolate," explains Naomi Mandel, assistant professor of marketing. "For unpleasant products, such as prune juice, consumers enjoy them less if they have to wait for them."

The research also examined whether delay registers with consumers, and how delay affects consumers' perceptions of the experience as a whole. Although waiting actually increased enjoyment, consumers were unable to predict or recognize that fact. "When given a choice," says Mandel, "consumers will always choose not to wait."

The studies

Prior research on delay and consumption enjoyment shows two factors at work: the pleasurable experience of anticipation versus the aversive experience of waiting. Nowlis, Mandel and McCabe examined the conditions under which one of these factors exerts a stronger influence than the other. They found that outcomes are directly affected by three things: the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the product; whether the consumption was hypothetical or real; and the vividness of the product.

The authors drew a clear line between pleasant and unpleasant products during the studies, using chocolate to test the mitigating influence of an alluring food, and prune juice to test the impact of the unappealing. Though these studies focused specifically on food, the authors note that the results are valid for any type of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. In other words, the differing dynamics of anticipation versus delay play out whether it's chocolate versus prune juice, or waiting on line to purchase a bestseller versus waiting at the doctor's office to receive a shot.

The first test was designed to determine whether a delay before consumption increases consumers' enjoyment of eating a pleasant product, but not an unpleasant one. Participants were split into two groups: one that would have to wait and one that would not. Each participant was asked to choose between two types of chocolate and two types of prune juice. In the first group, students immediately consumed the chocolate or prune juice, while the other participants waited 30 minutes before receiving the food. Both groups then ranked their enjoyment.

As expected, participants who waited for the chocolate enjoyed it more than those who did not wait, while those waiting to drink the prune juice enjoyed it less than those who drank it immediately. By nature, it seems, we wish to get unpleasant experiences over with as quickly as possible, while pleasant experiences are to be savored.

What if a pleasant product was not actually consumed, but rather just imagined? Would the same results occur? Study 2 examined hypothetical versus real consumption situations, and measured the effect of a product's vividness on overall consumption enjoyment in both groups.

Participants were divided into three groups: delay/no-delay, real/imagined consumption, and vivid/non-vivid stimulus. Participants in the "real" group received chocolate either immediately or after a 30-minute delay, then rated their enjoyment of the chocolate. Meantime, participants in the "imagined consumption" group were informed that their choice was hypothetical, and asked to rate how much they would enjoy the chocolate if they could, in fact, eat it. Half of the "vivid" group was exposed to the chocolate while they made their choices and/or waited to eat. The treats were hidden from view until consumption for the other half of the group.

As the researchers assumed, anticipation among participants waiting for real rather than hypothetical products was high. "Those in the hypothetical choice conditions did not feel their enjoyment levels would increase due to waiting," says Mandel. "Because they knew they were not going to receive the product, they were unable to imagine the pleasurable aspects of waiting to consume that product."

Interestingly, vividness was a factor only for the group thinking about — but not actually consuming the food. For those people, a delay increased their imagined enjoyment only when the chocolate was in front of them, presenting a vivid stimulus. The promise of chocolate, it seems, does not hold the same allure as actual chocolate. In the real condition, enjoyment increased after the delay regardless of whether or not the chocolate was on the desks tempting participants.

The third study tested the "if the tree falls in the woods" scenario for consumption enjoyment research. If consumers enjoy something more after waiting, but don't realize they enjoyed it more, did they really enjoy it more? Participants in this more philosophical study were again split into delay and no-delay groups and given their choice of two chocolate products. After consuming the chocolate, they answered questions such as "How would you rate the experience of both waiting for and eating the chocolate?" and "The next time you buy chocolate, how likely are you to consume it immediately?" The aim was to discover their views on the global experience of both eating and waiting.

Results showed an interesting paradigm: While the participants in the delay group actually reported higher levels of "consumption anticipation" — the hedonic boost provided by a delay — they did not rate the enjoyment of the overall experience (both waiting and eating) any higher than those who experienced no delay.

"Consumers do not remember that they actually enjoyed something more after needing to wait for it," explains co-author Nowlis. "Instead, they focused on the pain of waiting and thus would not want to wait again."

The implications

Given that delays in consumption are inevitable, this research provides insights for both consumers and businesses. Businesses will — and should — work to decrease consumption delays, yet knowing how to maximize customer experience when delays do occur is certainly a strategic advantage.

"Marketers should do everything possible to heighten anticipation when customers have to wait," says Nowlis. Amusement parks, for example, can show video clips of the ride to people waiting in line; restaurants can be designed so diners waiting for seats have a view of chefs preparing meals; and retailers can send customers photos of items they have ordered if there is a substantial delay — when preordering a new car, for instance.

For consumers, the research of Nowlis, Mandel and McCabe adds credence to the adage that "good things come to those who wait." Consumers seem unable to predict or recognize the boost in pleasure they get from waiting for a product, but delays do happen. Focusing on the pleasurable aspects of waiting is the best antidote for a long delay, advises Mandel.

A related project examining factors that influence consumers' enjoyment of television programs is up next for Nowlis and Mandel. Will viewers enjoy "The Apprentice," for example, more or less if they are part of an office pool predicting the winner? In spite of message boards, blogs, and endless on-air promos, preliminary results show that viewers actually enjoy TV shows more when they don't try to anticipate. If true, marketers will need to figure out what works best — building ratings with advance hype, or letting the quality of the programs themselves grow the audience.

» For the answer ... stay tuned.

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