Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Everyone Else's Line Always Seems to Move Faster than Yours

Barring unforeseen delays, empty lanes and lanes with the fewest people (not the fewest items) will generally get you out of the store quickest. So why does it always seem like everyone else's line is moving faster than yours?

When things get hectic, judging which line will be fastest is more luck than anything else. Bill Hammack, also known as The Engineer Guy, uses research about 19th century telephone systems to explain checkout lines in the video above. The basic premise is this: at any given time, there may be a large rush to the cashiers and there won't be enough cashiers to fill the need, causing delays. A queue for each lane exacerbates this, while one unified line (as some stores, like Whole Foods, have come to adopt) will move much faster—up to three times faster for a line serving three cashiers.

They also note, just as importantly, that there's a high chance that at least one of the other lines will move faster than yours—so the "pick the fastest line" game we often play when checking out doesn't usually do us much good. The moral? Stop stressing, pick a line, and make sure you've planned out your busy holiday weekend so you aren't pressed for time. Also, if you know of stores that use the one, unified queue approach, shop there—you'll get through checkout a lot faster.

My main problem in checkout lines is that the person in front of me always seems to have an item whose price is missing from the system, necessitating a search throughout the store to track down price while everyone else in that line waits or attempts to requeue to the next line they think will be the fastest.


  1. This is pretty interesting. Picking the line is like picking stocks. It seems pretty obvious we can pick the fastest line. But the research shows that the single line/next cashier approach is more efficient. This is the indexing approach.

  2. I'm with you on that thought.

    Also, I always thought of Wal-Mart as the most efficient retailer, and maybe they are in terms of supplier costs and distribution, but their check-out lines can be horrible. Being a tech geek, I shop a lot at Best Buy too, and this is the Best Buy check-out model, and I honestly can't recall feeling frustrated by waiting in that store.