The opportunity cost of buying iPhones and Cronuts

September 20, 2013

Quartz’s Ritchie King did some excellent reporting this morning, producing the infographic of the day: “The line for new iPhones vs the line for cronuts”. The line for new iPhones is 250 meters, or 92% longer than the line for the iPhone.

What this analysis fails to capture is the opportunity cost of waiting in line for the iPhone compared to The Cronut™. Here’s a back of the envelope calculation:

Conclusion: The Cronut™ has lower opportunity costs in absolute dollar terms, but far higher relative opportunity costs. Also, if you going to wait in line for an iPhone, buy a 5S. Interestingly, while Dominique Ansel is selling a baked good, the cost to his customers almost entirely consists of waiting in line.

To complete these calculations, you have to make a slew of assumptions (always a sign you are doing serious economic analysis). And each assumption has caveats.

Assumption 1: Line length in yards can be reliably converted into line length in minutes, and that this conversion rate is reasonably constant for both lines.

For the Cronut™, this relatively easy. The Cronut™ can sell out, so the only way to ensure you will get one is to arrive at Dominique Ansel Bakery early. Really, really early. Like 5:45 am, two hours and 15 minutes ahead of the bakery’s 8:00 opening. Anything else, and you expose yourself to waiting in line, and not getting the Cronut™. This isn’t the venue to put a cost on that type of moral failure.

For the new iPhones, people began lining up two weeks ago (albeit at not at the Soho store). Again, putting aside the almost moral failure to secure a gold 5S, you need several hours of early morning waiting to ensure you get an iPhone.

  • Caveat 1: Imprecision and variability. I tried to be conservative in my estimation of wait times, erring on the shorter side, but a conservative estimate is still an estimate. Nothing comparable to  Dan Nguyen’s tracking of the wait times to get into MoMa’s Rain Room has been done for Apple lines. It’s very hard to know precisely how long the line at either store will take. For instance, when I called Dominique Ansel Bakery to ask how long the wait generally was based on how long the line was, an employee told me that it’s basically impossible to know. Some transactions, he explained, were very brief and involved a single Cronut™. Others took as long as ten minutes, involving multiple Cronut™s and lots of souvenirs, which he described as “the sort of things you could take on planes”. (Out-of-towners add a further layer of complexity: see caveat 2.)

Assumption 2: The salaries of the people waiting in both lines are uniform and equal, and equal to the average of the median individual incomes in New York and Kings County in 2011: $80,326 per year, which works out at $40.16 an hour using the standard 50 week, 40 hours per week, 2000 hours per year work year.

  • Caveat 2: Imprecision and variability again. There’s no good way of knowing precisely how much people’s time waiting in line is worth. Obviously, they make different amounts of money doing different things. Some of those things are the type of job (e.g. hourly-pay based job that they missing work hours at to wait in line) where waiting in line has a clear cost. But what about a salary worker who doesn’t need to be at work during the hours they are waiting in line? Does the lost sleep count as a monetary cost? If so, is it offset by the status signalling benefits of waiting in line? (See caveat 3)

Assumption 3: Waiting in line is a has a cost associated with it.

  • Caveat 3: Maybe the opposite is true! People line up for all sorts of nutty, yet identifiably human, reasons: They want to be part of something; they want to spend time with friends; they want to the chance to be venerated as a deity; or they are being paid to be there by other people who don’t have the time to read this post but have enough money to pay someone else to wait in line for them. For the people standing in line, these are all, to answer Paul Vigna’s question, good or mediocre reasons to be there. Which means, if there is an Apple-store-line-length arbitrage to be had (and there is! The line at the Meatpacking store is measurably shorter than the line on Fifth Avenue!), there’s a mediocre argument that you get the most return by going to the store with the longest lines.

Assumption 4: After waiting in line, customers buy one product.

  • Caveat 4: Maybe. After waiting in line and sensing that they just burned through a bunch of opportunity cost, some customers buy more than one iPhone or a bunch of Cronut™s. This is smart: after waiting in line for a fixed amount of time, buying more products reduces the opportunity cost as a percentage of the full cost.

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The money cost is also an opportunity cost as you can’t spend the money elsewhere. Couldn’t you just call it time cost and monetary cost?

Posted by zaw56 | Report as abusive


Sorry Ben.

Posted by Twinkbait | Report as abusive

Talk about opportunity costs!

I just wasted three minutes I’ll never get back reading this poppycock.

Posted by Lilguy | Report as abusive

Ben, you cannot calculate opportunity cost as a percentage of the full cost, especially when comparing different products, man. Your marginal benefit analysis has fallacies.

Posted by R_N | Report as abusive

I thought it was a smart article. I work by Madison Square Park and watch people queue for 1.5hrs for a burger at shake shack. I have asked myself about the opportunity cost of doing his given you can get a burger nearby in 2 minutes

Posted by JohnPMQ | Report as abusive

One of St. Louis’ main grocery stores has been selling deep-fried croissants for at least a decade, and at $0.75 each. No lines. They are delicious. Why pay $5.00 for something when you can get it for 75 cents?

Apple could learn a thing or two from this.

Posted by joeporter | Report as abusive