Sometimes you read something about the behavior of others and think, thank god, I thought that was just me. The latest iteration: a piece in the Wall Street Journal that asks why people who can use a smartphone app to order ahead would opt to wait in line instead. It’s all anecdotal stuff—the individuals the WSJ spoke with (mostly users, though they spoke to a few small business owners and tech executives) give reasons for standing in line that range from hunger for human interaction, to needing to give super specific coffee instructions, to the wish to avoid having “the soup sold out from under them.” All more or less reasonable, though some are oddly melancholy.
But there’s one at the top that acted like an alarm bell for my weary soul, a clarion call that said, in no uncertain terms, “Hello, Allison, you are not alone in thinking this sucks, rejoice and be comforted.” Hark, here it is:
Every day, Mitchell Burton orders and pays for an Italian B.M.T. sandwich on his Subway mobile app, so the sandwich is waiting at the counter. When he arrives, the 32-year-old Baton Rouge, La., parks and recreation worker frequently heads to the back of the line, to avoid seeming rude to less tech-savvy fellow customers.
Line skippers sometimes “get the stink eye,” he says, because fellow patrons don’t understand that there’s an app to order ahead. “I generally do not want to seem like an ass,” he says.
I generally do not want to seem like an ass, I read, and nodded so emphatically to myself that I probably seemed like an ass.
My job, coupled with my complete inability to couple planning ahead with remembering that I planned ahead, means that I spend a lot of time rushing around, usually to or from a film screening, having given absolutely no thought to including meals as a part of my day. I’m often flustered, usually worried about being late, and reliably starving. As such, I could not be a better target for the order-ahead apps trumpeted by chains like Potbelly, Chipotle, and Starbucks. Get on the train, sit down, whip out my phone, order a damn sandwich, and presto: 30 minutes later I walk off the train, into a restaurant, grab my sandwich, and anxiously walk-run to my next destination.
But I hate the pickup. The convenience of getting things handled en route is often outweighed by the tiny nightmare into which I walk when pickup-time arrives. There are two choices: Walk to the front of the line, in front of all the impatient people waiting for the chance to order their burrito bowl or their chopped salad, and seem like (or at least feel like) an ass, or get in line and defeat the purpose of ordering ahead, only to inevitably be told by a weary sandwich artist that I’ll need to go directly to the register—again, seeming like an ass.
Some chains have this down. For all their flaws, most Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts locations into which I burst have it handled: there’s an area for pickup, and it’s not the register. In those circumstances, using the app is a breeze. The only hiccup here is the lack of a second tip jar, and that also seems like a solvable problem. If nothing else, cutting to the front of the line to drop a dollar in the jar makes you seem the opposite of an ass.
But for the most part, there’s no way to signal that you stood in what app executive Ray Reddy calls “the digital line,” as he described it to the WSJ. As such, even when I do bust out Potbelly’s mustard-yellow order-ahead system, the cons far outweigh the pros. At the moment, order-ahead apps seem to me to be a good idea, badly executed—a system likely to frustrate those who use it, as well as those who don’t, and one that’s something less than pleasant for people with a tendency to, say, dramatically overanalyze social interactions. In short, it could be a pickle for anyone who struggles with anxiety. And hell, if they forget to include your pickle, it gets even worse.