We tried to buy into The Queue. Here’s what we learned

We couldn’t waste this opportunity. Researchers dream of captivating audiences like The Queue.

Young and old, from the UK and beyond; All sorts of people could be found on the South Bank on Saturday. They all shared two things: a desire to honor the late Queen and a resilient attitude to long periods of essentially doing nothing.

So Alphaville went to them with a simple question: What is the value of time? To find out, we asked people on The Queue how much money they would accept to sell their spot on it.

Faced with the question of whether The Queue would close, we had to ask people to think abstractly: imagine you could go back, and that it would take you the same amount of time to get back to that point—then what?

Since The Queue took an estimated 14 hours during our visit, we picked three key points to be scholarly: Westminster, only about an hour from pilgrimage destination Westminster Hall; outside Tate Modern, about halfway; and Bermondsey, where a line had formed to join The Queue.

answers were. . . inconclusive.

Act I: The Long Shadows of Former Power

We started in the middle. The Tate Modern sits over the Millennium Bridge, just a short walk from FT Headquarters. Under the banners of Andy Warhol’s portrait of the Queen, we got to work.

Queues outside Tate Modern early Saturday © Louis Ashworth

It quickly became clear that for most of the Midway cohort – who had come to The Queue between 3 and 4am about seven hours earlier – turning back was not an option. The vast majority of people we spoke to said they wouldn’t sell. There were four general reasons:

  • Contempt for anyone who would try to shop (rare)

  • Refusal to profit from a period of national mourning (semi-rare)

  • Unwillingness to queue again (semi-common)

  • Love of queuing/their place in the queue (common, cf. “I’m too British”)

Other queues were more open minded. One man said he would go for £300 (about £43/hr), then a man and woman together said they would accept £150 each.

Among those willing to sell, offers in the low hundreds were a common response. These respondents tended to frame their asking prices as an hourly rate, ie how much they would like to be paid for seven hours of work (overnight queues in this case).

Of around 50 people who put a price tag in their seat, the median average was £180 (equivalent to around £26 per hour in queue). The average was £247 (£35 per hour). For comparison, the London Living Wage is currently £11.05 per hour.

One respondent said he would accept £10,500 on the grounds that it was about the same hourly rate a solicitor could make in the city and said he had worked through whole nights before.

The lowest median offer we got at the Tate Modern was £20 (£2.85 per hour) but there were others who would accept £30 and £40 to go. It’s not clear if these people were still enjoying The Queue.

Here’s the distribution up to the £1,000 mark (£25 baskets):

The first wave of data journalism has ended, we decided to split up to cover more areas.

Act II: Worthanger Abbey

George: After five or six “What a ridiculous question” replies in a row, it became clear: Queers in and around Westminster, so close to the end, wouldn’t trade their position for all the money in the world. If David Beckham OBE could go the distance, so could they.

Asking people outside of The Queue how much they would give to get in the front got more interesting results.

This audience was happy to play along. Responses ranged from the estimated current price of a pint of milk based on their memories of waiting in line (£40) to what Mike Ashley might consider spending money (£450). The old had more to spend than the young and women were on average willing to spend £15 more than men.

A lady walking around Parliament Square said she would pay “about £250” to skip the 14 to 15 hour wait. “It’s nice, but there’s no way I did that,” she sighed. A man nearby said he would have queued had it not been for his ill health and refused to give me a number. Another said “£300” in a flash.

Out of 30 people surveyed, the average price here was £125 (£8.33 per hour), while the median was £168 (or £11.20) – less than what people outside the Tate would be up for after seven hours demanded, but much closer to the London Living Wage.

Act III: The Age of Optimism

Ludwig: A short walk east from The Queue, upstream, took me past Shakespeare’s Globe, Winchester Palace and The Golden Hinde. Breaking into Borough Market was like stepping between worlds. Just a few yards from the pilgrimage route, people were scurrying between the stalls as usual, eyeing the pistachio fritters at Bread Ahead.

After taking the Jubilee Line at London Bridge and heading to Bermondsey, I chose a site near the ruins of King Edward III’s mansion. “Do you feel like part of the story?” a man asked (probably) his son as they walked alongside The Queue but didn’t queue. “No,” the boy replied.

© FT Alphaville/OpenStreetMap

After the mixture of pragmatism and patriotism outside the Tate, Bermondsey came as a shock. This is where people seemed most haughty and inflexible: an hour had passed with ease, leaving people brimming with self-esteem.

A majority said they would simply never consider selling. “Give me a million pounds and I wouldn’t give up,” said one man who seemed to think it was an elaborate form of torture. “It’s just not English,” said one man, to which the woman next to him added, “Or Welsh.” One woman said she would never sell, adding: “This is my place”.

Of those who responded, their position — about an hour to 90 minutes later — made the math of the proposal clearer. Five people said they would sell for £50, but a similar number suggested £500, £1,000 or £5,000. Of the few dozen that would give a vaguely realistic number, the median average was £500 – good job if you can get it. The median was a staggering £1,586 thanks to some blowout proposals at the top end.

Here’s the distribution (25 lb bucket – NB for clarity, I’ve clipped an outlier at 10,000 lbs here for readability. It’s bad enough as it is):

Heartwarmingly, several people said they wouldn’t want to stand in line again because they got along so well with the people around them. This sense of occasion and the collision of worlds seemed to concern many. “I’m a lorry driver,” said one man who would accept £1,250 for his hourly slot. “I’m a CXO,” a follower told him. She had priced it at $1,000 (equivalent to about £878 per pixel).

In the early afternoon we decided enough was enough and headed back to the office.

Act IV: Endgame

Reunited at Bracken House, we ate pizza and started adding up our numbers. It quickly became clear that we had to be quite familiar with the processing.

An initial analysis using averages within an interquartile range was unsatisfactory: while it provided a solid statistical basis* and produced more consistent results**, we couldn’t help but feel that many of the figures given to us at the bottom end did deserved to be included, while the higher end – like the five-figure offers we were made at Bermondsey – should not be taken seriously.

After careful qualitative discussion*** we have agreed to cut all proposed prices at £12,600: for non-UK residents this is the capital gains tax threshold. We argued that nobody would want to go beyond selling their place in the queue (a personal possession, for the sake of argument) and risk having to explain to HM Revenue & Customs what they did.

Once the cleanup was complete, we gleaned some compelling insights by merging the data:

Fascinating. Using the CGT cap theory to determine a theoretical final price of £12,600 ‘at the door’ at Westminster Abbey, a polynomial trend line (recommended by Satya Nadella) allows for a few hypotheses:

  • The Bermondsey Group massively overestimates its own worth.

  • On Saturday morning there was a “Valley of Despair” near Tower Bridge/City Hall where people would pay you to take their seat.

The gulf (if real****) between Bermondsey and outside the Tate Modern is fascinating. Perhaps, in hindsight, the Taters had a much clearer sense of what they considered the value of the time they had spent compared to the economic naivety of the Bermondensians.

So what have we learned?

  • The London Living Wage probably does not adequately reflect how people in London value their own time, but approximates how they value someone else’s

  • Spots in The Queue are an incredible growth asset, but the relationship between position and price is nuanced

  • The theoretical earning potential of a “professional queer” is extremely high – but whether there are buyers is uncertain

  • For a savvy and lucky trader there could be some excellent arbitrage opportunities, selling midway into the queue and using your hard-earned windfall to buy another spot while potentially pocketing the difference. Liquidity can be a challenge

  • People really don’t like going backwards

  • Data journalism remains tough

* it has not
** also no
*** Vibes-based approach
**** which our research is unlikely to show

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