Timing is right for T riders, businesses
Commuters freed by countdown clocks give food and coffee shops a boost
Ada Tejada knows when business is going to be good.
From behind the counter at the Subway restaurant adjoining the Massachusetts Avenue T stop, she can see the two magic words in the station lobby glowing bright orange: “20+ min.”
Cue the crush of customers — the next Orange Line train is a long way off.
“Everybody waits in here, because it’s warm,” said Tejada, a manager at the restaurant, “and because they can smell the food.”
Since the T introduced countdown clocks in August 2012 to tell subway riders when to expect the next train, customers have been raving. Surveys suggest a 15 percent jump in passenger satisfaction.
But businesses have been cashing in on the clocks, too: Without fretting that a train is imminent, customers are more willing to cool their heels and enjoy the wait with a cup of joe or a doughnut in hand.
“We hoped the countdown clocks would have a positive effect on business in and near our stations,” said Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spokeswoman Kelly Smith. “It’s nice to see they’re actually having an impact.”
The T announced last week that it had finished putting countdown clocks in every station on the Red, Orange, and Blue lines. The transportation agency’s records on vendor sales are too spotty to yield hard evidence that sales increases are real.
But customers who patronize the coffee shops, snack stands, and sandwich hole-in-the-walls with prime real estate inside train stations or just beyond know: Of course the clocks are boosting business.
Cantabrigian Angelica Daniels, 25, said she knows the trend is fact — and not just because she finds herself more tempted to buy coffee when she has a few minutes to wait. Riding the down escalator at Porter Square station, she said, she often sees commuters in front of her descend just deep enough to steal a glimpse of the countdown clock — and when they see there’s time to spare, turn around and sprint back up the stairs, returning with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup in hand.
“I’ve seen it,” Daniels said. “They run past you on the escalator.”
At Harvard Square station, 21-year-old Evelyn Pedroza said she used to constantly crane her neck to check if a train was coming. Now?
“It’s more relaxed, and I’m more patient. I used to rush down here,” Pedroza said. “Now that the sign is here, it’s easier for people to know if they can get coffee or not.”
And what’s good for shops near train stations could soon be true for those next to bus depots: The T announced that countdown clocks are coming to bus stations starting this summer.
The benefits of countdown clocks have long been known: In 2010, Jamaica Plain resident Benjamin Resner spent $350 to build and install a real-time tracking display — the first unofficial MBTA countdown clock — at his neighborhood JP Licks, offering other customers the chance to enjoy their ice cream in peace while waiting for the number 39 bus. In the months afterward, JP Licks reported an increase in sales.
Coffee and baked goods titan Dunkin’ Donuts would have you believe America runs on Dunkin’. But the chain’s executives would just as soon you not run past their outlets, which may explain why they are so fond of the countdown clocks.
“We are excited to hear some of the positive reactions from our customers regarding the new system and making Dunkin’ Donuts part of their commuting experience,” said Todd Wallace, field marketing director for Dunkin’ Donuts.
Not all store owners say they’ve seen a difference. At the Dunkin’ Donuts inside Harvard Square station, manager Rajiv Rahman insisted his shop is not susceptible to the allure of a countdown clock. When you’ve gotta get your coffee, you’ve gotta get your coffee, he said — regardless of whether you might miss the next train.
“We have regulars,” Rahman said. “If they don’t have it, it ruins their day.”
For some subway station vendors, the extent of the impact depends on the vagaries of location. The Mass. Ave. Subway shop sits at a sweet spot: Customers cannot see the train platforms through a door at the side of the restaurant — but they can see the station lobby, and, now, the countdown clock.
It works the same for Tom Magee, owner of TJ Enterprise, a coffee and snack stand that sits just before the fare gates at Back Bay Station. Before the countdown clocks, there was no way to know from upstairs that a train was approaching.
Now, subway riders stop at his kiosk more frequently, Magee said, and they’re nicer, too.
“They have time to linger,” Magee said.
Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.