Whatever happened to "Next"?
October 30, 2021 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Why do they say "Following guest" at major U.S. retail shops instead of "Next in line"?

I'm not sure exactly when this happened, but at a certain point in the past decade all retail shops have stopped saying "Next in line" or "Next customer," and instead saying "Following guest" or simply just shortened to "Following?"

Why did this happen? What's wrong with "Next"? It's obviously some corporate/legal directive, but I'm not understanding the logic.

Does anyone have any insider info on this? If it matters, this is something I've observed in New York City and environs.
posted by war wrath of wraith to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Los Angeles, CA
Have yet to come across this practice.
posted by calgirl at 4:28 PM on October 30, 2021 [13 favorites]

Likewise in DC and have never heard this at any retail establishment.
posted by fancypants at 4:37 PM on October 30, 2021 [9 favorites]

Never have experienced this on the west coast…
posted by arnicae at 4:38 PM on October 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: My question wasn't "This is happening in my neighborhood, have you noticed it happening in your neighborhood too?" My question was "This is happening in my neighborhood, does anyone know why?"
posted by war wrath of wraith at 4:41 PM on October 30, 2021 [9 favorites]

Target, by way of Disney.
posted by thejoshu at 4:46 PM on October 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Here's a NY Times article from 2015 about the phenomenon. General idea seems to be that "guest" lends an air of warmth and welcoming. As to the use of "following" instead of "next" -- perhaps because they don't want to have two monosyllabic, almost rhyming words back-to-back.
posted by theory at 4:49 PM on October 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

i also haven't heard this specifically, but when i worked at panera in 2004 i was told not to say "i can help whoever's next" but to say "i can help whoever's ready" which was supposed to sound polished or more upscale or something? but also because we always had a bunch of people staring at the menu and this made it clear that if you were ready, you should just come on up and not worry about the still-deciding people, for overall improved efficiency. maybe also the deciding people would feel like we were hollering at them to hurry up, where the approved wording was more of an invitation to take your time and come when you are ready.
posted by katieanne at 5:10 PM on October 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

A local restaurant was using "guests" instead of customers in the late 1980s, so that part goes back at least that far.

A waitress at a Pizza Hut in the 70s told me that the company had done studies and discovered that the servers giving their names (Hi, I'm Edwina, and I'll be your waitress) resulted in larger tips. Some corporate somebody has probably researched this and discovered something about customer behavior.
posted by FencingGal at 5:34 PM on October 30, 2021

Best answer: (I’m getting the feeling the OP is asking more about the use of “following” instead of “next,” rather than using “guest” instead of “customer,” which has been around a long time.)

Slate, Let’s Talk About “Next”:
The 21st-century boilerplate for this interaction is, of course, “May I help the following guest?” which many Slatesters recall leaping to the fore at Starbucks, drugstores, and elsewhere sometime in the previous decade. With its classy substitution of “guest” for “customer” and its ostentatiously grammatical swap of “following” for “next,” the phrase threatens to turn your trip to Staples into an unwritten Bertie Wooster novel.
So…an attempt to sound fancy? Because companies think “next” sounds too demanding or “common”?
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:49 PM on October 30, 2021 [9 favorites]

I worked in retail at a Six Flags theme park more than 20 years ago and per the Disney model, we were required to use the word "guest" instead of customer. IIRC it was definitely about making the person feel valued and appreciated beyond the money they spent (with the hope that this would entice them to spend more money).
posted by sm1tten at 5:49 PM on October 30, 2021

Best answer: My assumption is that retailers know that a shout of "Next!" is a classic marker of hostile or indifferent service, and they would rather have their cashiers do...not that. The beauty of "Can I help the following guest?" Is that there is no single syllable to shout. You can shout "Following!" but that doesn't sound nearly as peremptory. My guess is that this will be a "euphemism treadmill" type situation where everyone wants to be on the leading edge of the curve so you get a new thing every decade or two. In 2035, get ready for "upcoming patron" or whatever.
posted by goingonit at 5:58 PM on October 30, 2021 [31 favorites]

Northeast US here, and I haven't heard the "following" version of this. It sounds awkward to me, too many syllables for something that has to get shouted very frequently.
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 6:36 PM on October 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh, I forgot to add we weren't allowed to say "next!" but I don't recall if we used "following guest" or what the language was. What I remember now is that using language like "next in line" or "customer" or "step up, please" --- really anything you might commonly hear in a grocery store or something -- was considered to be not in keeping with the idea that coming to the park was a Special Experience that centers on the guest and the staff is helpful, conciliatory, and yet somewhat invisible. (Along the same lines, we weren't allowed to walk inside of the park during operating hours while in uniform, but had to traverse via "backstage" routes.)
posted by sm1tten at 6:58 PM on October 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm really curious when this started- I had never heard it until I moved to New York City in 2011. My theory was that after some store started training employees to use it, it started to spread naturally. I've since heard it occasionally on the West Coast, though I don't have the impression that large chains have it in an employee manual, because it's definitely not ubiquitous. (The "guest" part might be, but not "following.") It sounds ungrammatical to me.
posted by pinochiette at 7:00 PM on October 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: No sources for this, but I would say "next!" implies a kind of factory line context where things come at you in a row and must be dealt with as swiftly as possible. The word is short and bark-able.

"Following" disguises the commercial nature of the interaction better, same as guest. It's not just 'fancier' but also an intentional way to hide that the nature of the exchange is financial.
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:02 PM on October 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

I can’t believe you guys haven’t ever heard “following guest”. It’s literally everywhere in New York and I guess I assumed it was universal. It’s so common that I never even thought to wonder about it until this post.

I especially notice it in places where there are more registers than lines, like a Trader Joe’s. In a place like that there’s a lot of background noise, and I’m wondering if that’s related - it’s a phrase that would be hard to mistake for anything else.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:25 PM on October 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

Another New Yorker here who hears this all the time and is surprised it isn’t more widespread, because the place I’m most likely to hear it is in chain stores. First place I remember noticing it was at Duane Reade (NYC pharmacy chain, now owned by Walgreens) in the late 90s or early aughts. DR was expanding verrry rapidly right then, and I assumed that they had a new set of customer service / “hospitality” policies from the home office of whatever big company had just bought them. Could well have spread from there.
posted by miles per flower at 7:41 PM on October 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

At my Whole Foods, we say" May I help whomever is ready?"
But we are in Virginia.
posted by markbrendanawitzmissesus at 9:28 PM on October 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

My parsing is that "following" is not the correct term to use here because it is talking about a behaviour which is slightly different from waiting in line. Following is a term which works with relation to a leader. Here is a leader being followed by some geese, by way of illustration. If the leader is waiting by a till and then decides to walk away - then the followers will all walk immediately walk away too - and following goose #1 - the "next" goose - will not step forward to be served.
* I am British and solemnly promise not to try to explain this logic to anybody in an actual American store
posted by rongorongo at 3:35 AM on October 31, 2021 [10 favorites]

I recently noticed this in line at a Michaels craft store a few weeks ago. I assumed it was a dumb corporate policy. I found in annoying and fake--I am a customer, not a guest. And we "guests" were waiting in a long line, with just one cashier.

Relatedly, in Walgreens a while back, and the cashiers said "be well" for a few months. Gag.
posted by rhonzo at 5:42 AM on October 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Certainly familiar with that retail euphemism of calling customers "guests." This is even spreading to government, where I've heard it while standing in line at the DMV.

What's wrong with "Next"?

Easy to imagine somebody at corporate deciding that "Next" (or even Yes?) is rude and mandating this weird 'following' construct, instead. Hasn't spread to my neck of the woods, however.
posted by Rash at 8:27 AM on October 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

It sounds more polite.
posted by heathrowga at 8:31 AM on October 31, 2021

This reminds me of something that really puzzled me when I arrived in New Orleans. “Good evening” in a customer service situation can be almost completely untethered from the time of day, as long as it’s not morning. I’ve had people say good evening to me at 12:30 pm. It took a long time for it to dawn on me that it is all about making the receiver feel elegant, hour be damned.
posted by umbú at 8:07 PM on November 2, 2021

A quick note on Disneyfication: fwiw, it is my memory that at (pre-pandemic) Disneyland some variation of “next guest” was standard. “I can help the next guest,” etc.

I am another from Los Angeles who has not noticed this change—“next in line,” “next guest,” “I can help who’s next,” or even just “next” are standard. To my ear, “following” sounds kind of clunky, though I can appreciate how someone else might find it more formal or appreciate its slightly different connotation. I will definitely be paying more attention to this from now on!
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 8:16 AM on November 4, 2021

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