Slow during the day, frantic at 5 pm?
June 18, 2008 4:23 AM   Subscribe

Why are 99% of service businesses open only at inconvenient times?

Why are car repair shops, doctor's offices, dry cleaners, and countless other examples, open from 8-5ish, M-F ?

It would seem the most convenient, and theoretically most profitable example of these businesses would invert their hours to best serve 99% of the working public.
posted by toastchee to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
1. You can drop your car off at night.

2. Hospitals these days: open all 24 hours of the day.

3. Laundromats are open all night.
posted by pwally at 4:40 AM on June 18, 2008

A lot of these businesses have a fairly captive audience as well. I need my car repaired, I can't do it so I have to fit in around the hours of the man who does. A pain, but i have no choice.

Opening at weekends won't necessarily increase the business for the car repair man, there's still the same number of people out there who can't repair their own car. Businesses that open at weekends / stay open late do so because they can attract more customers that way, the "working public" as you call them.

There may be an argument that the 1 car repair place that does open outside of the 9-5 slot would attract more customers, but maybe, as daveyt points out, why work at inconvenient hours when you don't have to?
posted by jontyjago at 4:43 AM on June 18, 2008

The answer is simple: they're rather comfortable running their business during these hours, and don't have a reason to change.

As toastchee has already pointed out, these constrained hours present a classic market opportunity; that is, either a new or an existing competitor can expand outside of the 8-5/M-F hours.

Regardless, this won't happen if the market isn't large enough. I live in London, and most service businesses are open outside the window you mention. But London is the most populous city in Europe, so the market (i.e., demand) is rather large.

On the other hand, my mother still lives where I was reared - a small town (actually "incorporated township") with a population far less than one thousand people.

And service businesses there operate pretty much in that narrow window you've mentioned. The local population (i.e., market) isn't large enough to support more than one dry cleaner, so the old dear running the towns ONLY dry cleaner opens at times that best suit her and the larger community.
posted by Mutant at 4:43 AM on June 18, 2008

A slightly more sensible answer than my previous one.

I'd argue that 99% of the population dont work 9-5, its maybe less than of half that.

In the UK, 25% are at school 9-5. 60% are 16-64 - comprising the vast majority of the 'working public'. Allow for say 10-15% for non-workers, or shift workers who have the ability to visit services 9-5, thats probably 50% of people who we could estimate work 9-5. There are of plenty of working people who can visit services 9-5 (nip out at lunch etc, leave early, start late - I manage just fine for instance)

If the services are therefore open 9-5, they are available for at least half the population. The investment to capture the rest of the markeyt, versus the cost of opening is probably not worth it for everyone.

As mentioned buy Mutant above, its probably geographic. You cant please everyone all of the time.
posted by daveyt at 5:05 AM on June 18, 2008

The present order of things is not terribly inconvenient. Doctor's office and mechanic shop visits are few enough that you can make time for them without getting in trouble at work.

Also, some businesses have already modified their hours to meet their clientele's needs. My dry cleaner (and most in my neighborhood) open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m., so I can drop off clothes before work and pick them up after work. My Home Depot opens at 6 a.m. to service early morning construction crews. Our doctor has one night a week where they stay until 7 p.m. and they have some Saturday hours. Taco Bell stays open until 3 a.m. to serve that crowd, etc.

Also also, I think daveyt has the idea: the employees of the service businesses make up a large part of the working public, so inverting the hours would disrupt the present order of things. Anecdotally, in Illinois there is a law (625 ILCS 5/5‑106) that requires car dealers to close on Sundays. It is said that the dealers pushed for the law to maintain a consistent day off, because they feared that their competitors may open on Sunday, and once the first one did then they all would have to.
posted by AgentRocket at 5:05 AM on June 18, 2008

I forgot to include those people (working in the services) in my calculations. I would guess its significant - 10-20% maybe of the 9-5 workers?
posted by daveyt at 5:20 AM on June 18, 2008

The men work 8-5, and the women run their errands during the day since they don't have a job besides being a housewife. The time outside of 8-5 doesn't need businesses open because everyone is at home spending time with their families and eating dinner.

The key to your question is finding a time in the past 30 years when service businesses would have switched from that reality to our present one.
posted by smackfu at 5:28 AM on June 18, 2008 [7 favorites]

Let's say repair shops do shift their business hours. So, you drop your car off at 5:00pm for them to investigate that bad noise you hear. Are you going to happily take their call at midnight or 1am to tell you that it's a bad universal joint and that they'll have to keep it another day?

At the very least, most auto repair shops (at least in my area) have extended drop-off/pick-up hours now, to make things a bit more convenient. No more having to leave work early in order to retrieve your car before the shop closes.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:36 AM on June 18, 2008

Speaking as a former business owner, you simply can't win. Our bakery was originally open from 6:30 am - 2pm Saturdays and Sundays, and from 6:30 am - 4pm Tues - Friday. People bitched. "Why aren't you open Monday? Why aren't you open later on Sunday?" etc. We physically couldn't work around the clock. Moreover, we'd have, at best 2-3 customers after noon on the weekends. So we cut hours back to close at noon. All of a sudden, our "best" (meaning they might buy a single cookie once a month, honestly) weekend customers bitched about that.

I could go on but you get the point. Some people have terrible time management skills, and the Wal-Mart/24 hour culture/everything's cheap business model doesn't help.

If you're skilled or offer a unique service, you should be able to schedule your business and life accordingly.
posted by Atom12 at 5:47 AM on June 18, 2008 [8 favorites]

The point is that "office hours" don't best suit the larger community. A lot of the larger community is at work. However, not all of 'em. Presumably enough that a lot of people have access to someone (spouse, friend, flatmate) to run errands for them; and presumably the money funnelled through these people is greater than their own money, ie they're spending their own money, and the money of their working spouses, parents, etc.

So the amount of money available to spend in, say, shoe store, is spent during the hours the shoe stores are open. Because being open at different hours incurs the problem of greater overheads for any time outside business hours (you have to pay your staff, your electricity bills, maybe your shopping centre charges extra), and incurs the problem of missed sales during any time inside business hours when you're not open and customers are around.

There's a social effect in a shopping centre or shopping district: centre management gains from having all the stores open at more or less the same time (maybe enough to contractually enforce it), and the stores gain from being open at the same time since customers come in for Store A and might also visit Store B, and the customers gain from being able to visit several stores at once with one trip. So shopping centres will tend naturally to synchronize hours with little variation. And nearby stores, do the same. And so on.

In summary, "office hours" will tend to emerge out of averaged trends.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:51 AM on June 18, 2008

People like teachers, housewives, telecommuters, students, make up a decent chunk of the population at large, and can go to stores during normal business hours. But I think in most urban and busy suburban areas places are open earlier or later than 8 and 5.

While I agree with smackfu's answer, I think places may not have changed their hours much because honestly, who cares about missing a day of work now and then to get a tooth drilled? Not everyone can roll over their personal/vacation days ;)
posted by shownomercy at 6:02 AM on June 18, 2008

My boyfriend is a mechanic at a Honda dealership and they are actually open on Saturday, which also happens to be their slowest day of the week.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:25 AM on June 18, 2008

I'd suggest a much simpler reason than those offered so far: those services that operate 9-5 do so because there isn't enough demand to support other operating hours. If there were a business case for them to do so, they would. It would take a while for an industry to change, but change it would.

Think about it: would you rather go to the dentist in the evening instead of being with the wife and kids, or would you rather just take some time off work?
posted by randomstriker at 6:26 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

At least in my experience in large metro areas in the US, I think your premise is faulty. First, I wouldn't call doctors and dentists "service people". They are professionals with whom you make appointments. And all of my doctors do keep late office hours a day or two a week, and/or work Saturdays. A number of the car dealerships around me have late hours. Oil change places are open late. In fact, I can't think of any retail/service place that isn't open until at least 7 or 8 during the week.

Secondly, they are most likely are open for the most profitable hours- more often than not, they are already open more hours than would be optimally profitable but remain open as part of their "service" calling. I've worked in stores that weren't profitable except in December. But you have to stay open all year to get that profit.

During the day, during the week, is when the majority of people get their stuff done.
posted by gjc at 6:56 AM on June 18, 2008

I tend to agree with randomstriker -- you need a critical mass to warrant alternative working hours. And my intuition is that the feasibility depends very much on the kind of service; one key variable, as others have indicated, is whether it's recurring or not (e.g., easy to squeeze in the occasional trip to the dentist during the day). So here are a couple of examples of service industries that do stay open lengthier or alternative hours: gyms, video rental, and (I think) psychologists/psychiatrists. I think in each case there's a recurring service factor, and an additional explanation as to why you might not be able to squeeze a visit in during the day.

I have some sympathy with the OP insofar as you would expect SOME greater variation even in less obvious cases -- e.g., to hear of a doctor who works the alternative shift as a means of product variation. But I suspect we can come up with examples of substitute services that take away a key part of the constituency (e.g., emergency rooms) and sufficient ways for the clientele to time-shift other activities (like grocery shopping) to nearly fill their discretionary, off-peak hours.

Shorter answer: man, you should try living in Europe!
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:59 AM on June 18, 2008

Obviously, people want to keep first-shift hours because they want to keep the same hours as everyone else. A lot of people who run their businesses are more competent than Mr. Joe Officeworker who has never run his own business. If it was 2nd shift or nothing then the businessowner would go work in an office and probably take your job.

Most places by me are open something like 10-6:30 or so. I can usually get there right after work. Its not a big deal.

I'm also curious where you think a late night mechanic is going to get parts from? Or are you suggesting everything move to a 2 or 3 shift operation? If so, that's not profitable outside of certain industries.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:11 AM on June 18, 2008

Living in metro NY, the local car place is open 7am-7pm M-F and on weekends (If I drop my car off after 5, no work will be done until the next day), my doctor works a Sunday-Thursday work week, 11am-7pm, the laundromat I drop my clothes off at is open M-Tu 7am-3pm and W-Sat 11am-6pm. (It's just the owner who works there, no one else. I usually drop it off Tuesday on my way to work and can pick it up Wedneday after work.)

As for food, dinners are all open 24 hours, chain establishments until 12 or 1 on week nights and 2-3 on weekends, individually owned food places until 11 or so.

My bank (local credit union) is open until 5:30pm M-Th, 7pm Friday and 9am-1pm Saturday, though several banks here now have Sunday hours.

I can't imagine places keeping stright 9-5 hours. But then again, I live in metro NY where extended hours is the norm, not the exception.
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:23 AM on June 18, 2008

Not really understanding the snark from some.

I'm an office drone wondering why it's so many places appear very slow during the day with a big rush at 5:15.

Back in my restaraunt days, I had Tues or Wed off with ample time and no crowds at the stores, mechanic, etc. Now these tasks can be a major pain.

I would love to work alternate hours, but that's really not possible.
posted by toastchee at 7:41 AM on June 18, 2008

I have often thought it might be reasonable to work (in my doctor's office) evenings or weekends.

Try hiring staff who want to work those hours, though. They will revolt and hang your head from a pike.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:07 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also, it occurs to me that half the time when patients see me, I have to ask their other docs or radiologists to fax me records. That doesn't work when those other offices aren't open.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:08 AM on June 18, 2008

Why change? Flex time is becoming more popular among office workers. I work 10 to 6:30, so going to the post office/mechanic/dentist/doctor/vet at 9 am is no problem for me. Note: many of these offices open at 8 am, so I have two hours to play with. Other people will work 7-4, so they can go after work. The long lunch to run errands is also popular. If you ask me, there's no need for many of these places to change their hours.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:39 AM on June 18, 2008

Try hiring staff who want to work those hours, though. They will revolt and hang your head from a pike.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I work at a 24-hour veterinary hospital, and it is very difficult to find people to work the 3pm - 11pm shifts, much less the 11pm - 7am ones (even despite the +$2/hour pay differential for working the overnight shift). It is also, as some have mentioned, financially difficult to pay people to work during times when the demand is minimal. We are in a seasonal area, and during the off-season there are entire shifts that go by with no patients in the hospital, and no new patients coming in.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:43 AM on June 18, 2008

First, the market size who can't get their business done in customary hours is even smaller than the raw numbers of 9-5 workers (which is itself a minority of the consumer population. Many 9-5 workers have spouses or other people to run their errands for them and/or are free to take time off to attend to problems. Quite rationally, they prefer to have their spouse do, or to do it the expense of their company, than to do it themselves at the expense of their personal free time.

Second, many establishments which provide services to the public must attend just as much to the need to provide services to other businesses (who are often more profitable than consumers) and the need to communicate with other businesses in the course of providing services to customers (think stores dealing with vendors, or lawyers and brokers talking with one another about mutual customers, or medical offices making referrals and dealing with insurance companies). These requirements require whole industries and market segments to have an aligned and concentrated set of business hours.
posted by MattD at 8:55 AM on June 18, 2008

I would agree with smackfu. Historically speaking, the societal reasons probably were that the "man of the house" went to work, and expected the "woman of the house" to be out running errands. (and more basically, it makes more sense to have businesses open during the daylight hours because a) people are awake then and b) at night most people are home with their families.)

I feel your frustration though. And I would agree that society is changing and businesses should change with that. Personally I've been advocating for ages that businesses should be 24/7... but I've also worked in enough businesses to understand the reasons why you might not want to do that (not enough customers during off peak hours).

As others have said, you cant please everyone. Most businesses cant afford to be open 24/7, so they have to make a decision about which hours are most profitable for them, and only be open during those hours. (I work the night shift,.. so for me.. that means I have to force myself to wake up during the daytime.. go out and run some errands, then go back to bed)
posted by jmnugent at 9:24 AM on June 18, 2008

I don't understand it either, and am building my practice based on people being sick of it.

So far my evenings and weekends schedule and willingness to travel (especially if someone has kids or is otherwise hobbled) is serving me fantastically. So, yeah- definitely a market opportunity.

I have noticed over and over that sole proprietors start limiting their hours as they get successful. They don't need new customers, and are happy to have anyone not fanatically devoted to them fall by the wayside. Weird hours are one way to encourage that.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:30 AM on June 18, 2008

I should have said "limited" hours, not "weird" hours.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:31 AM on June 18, 2008

I don't want to work at 2AM. I want to be asleep in bed. I don't want to start work at 2PM, and finish at 10PM. I want to be at home relaxing with my family.

I did work those shifts in a shop, for a period. We got very few customers compared to the rest of the day, after say 5:30. People were at home, or out doing other things, not shopping, or doing whatever.

There's a mindset that says "shops open 9-5", that's difficult to change. The majority of people don't expect shops or whatever to be open past that time, so they don't use the service at that time, so it doesn't make financial sense for the business owner to stay open at that time. Which causes the original mindset. Catch 22.
posted by Solomon at 10:41 AM on June 18, 2008

I used to frequent an amazing hot dog place in chicago called Hot Doug's... they had, most would say, very inconvenient hours-- Monday through Saturday 10:30AM to 4PM. Any weekday that you go there, there's a line. Any Saturday that you go there, there's a line out the door.

I once asked Doug why he wasn't open later, especially since he was always busy and his food would presumably go over quite well with a late-night crowd. His answer was very simple and quickly shut me up, "I don't want to work more."

Like a lot of people said, if you provide a valuable service, people will find a way to make it. It's pretty universally accepted, at least wherever I've worked, that you can come in late, leave for an hour, etc. to drop off a car, go to a doctor, wait for a repairman (don't even get me started on "time windows" that people like cable and television companies try to impose, though) and that makes this pretty OK.

It's kind of convenient that there's a fuzzy idea of "business hours" for all industries and they overlap, when you think about it. Sure, some things, by necessity (bakeries, laundromats) open a little earlier because it's understood that people want to stop by on their way to work. In the same way, I've noticed that most banks (at least in NYC) have a day or two a week that they're open a little later (say 7PM) so you can go in after work if you really need to.
posted by atomly at 11:36 AM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

The other nice thing about working a standard workday is that you get to spend time in the off hours with people who also work a standard workday. When I waited tables at night and my SO worked days, we hardly saw each other. Now, with the (new) SO, we're both done by 5:30 and get to spend evenings together.

Also, I agree with Hot Doug.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:37 PM on June 18, 2008

Here in Beijing you see an entirely different mindset. Since so many of the businesses are owned individually, what you'll see are microcosms of late night activity or early closures, depending on neighborhood. Where I'm living we've got it pretty good - I can ring up the dry cleaner downstairs and have him hand-deliver stuff 100 feet to my door. He just locks up his shop and comes up. It's the same with a lot of the restaurants. So long as people are coming in the door, hey, they got time, and they may or may not kick you out. Banks are 7 days a week, 9am-7pm at larger branches, and larger stores usually close up between 7-10. It's pretty alright.

Anyway, what this comes down to is culture. I cannot begin to fathom what the differences are exactly, but I know I love the lengths they'll go to to keep a repeat customer.

This does not apply to fleamarket-style merchants, which are another ball game entirely. While most small businesses with their own locations are more than happy to work with you on flexibility and service, what you often sacrifice is the ability to bargain. In the giant markets malls where you rent a stall, the service and bargaining necessary to get anything done are abominations. But you might just get a deal on your random stuff, so I guess it's worth it, but I find that kind of shopping impossible. Give me a merchant who knows me and treats me well and I'll pay a premium.
posted by saysthis at 6:32 PM on June 18, 2008

Hot Doug! Excellent example. Seems like we piss an moan about working to much, but in the same breath we are expecting others to do so, for our convenience. How hard is it to take a personal/sick/comp day to get in the dentist appointment? Or choose a dentist that works evenings one night a week?
posted by gjc at 8:40 PM on June 18, 2008

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