The other evening, I found myself impatiently waiting on the supermarket checkout line. Although I waited just a few minutes while the clerk rang up the customers ahead of me, those minutes seemed to last much longer. Why?

Other customers seemed irritated, too, shifting from side to side, peering around one another, and making small noises when one woman pulled out her wallet after the clerk told her the total. How dare she waste five seconds? Didn't she know she'd have to pay?

It all made me realize that patience is wearing thin -- not just mine, but the patience of billions of Internet-empowered consumers who have grown used to instantaneous responses to such critical questions as "When will Earth be sucked into the sun?" or "What is Beyonce's shoe size?"

Wait For It

Now, when we want to find something out, we don't have to wait, we don't want to wait and we're not going to wait any longer. And in the rare moment when we do have to wait, it's very irritating. 

Social media has only compounded this effect. Now, if we fire off a tweet to a company, we can tweet bad things about the company if they fail to respond. 

Companies that don't understand the power of social media are learning it the hard way, putting out little fires -- and occasional big blazes -- here and there when customers air their complaints in posts that often harmonize with the feelings of other consumers. 

Case in point: after clutzy baggage handlers at O'Hare Airport broke one of their guitars, the country band Sons of Maxwell recorded the episode in "United Breaks Guitars," a comic video that now has been viewed 14 million times on YouTube, generating more than 74,500 "likes."

Days, Not Hours

My grocery aisle musings popped back into my head today when I read the results of a study from Eptica, the Berkshire, England-based customer management company. It noted how retailers in the United Kingdom are "improving" their email response times, but failing to deliver on Twitter.

What struck me most was what passes for improvement. On average, the study said the wait for a reply to an email inquiry had "improved dramatically" to a mere 35 hours and 43 minutes. Let's call that a day and a half. As recently as 2012, the figure was almost 67 hours.