How to pick the fastest queue at the supermarket

Bear in mind these tips when you’re next stuck behind a line of stressed shoppers

‘Serpentine’ queues tend to move faster than the more conventional type. Photograph: iStock

‘Serpentine’ queues tend to move faster than the more conventional type. Photograph: iStock

 

You dash into the supermarket for a few necessities. You reckon it will take 10 minutes at the most before you are finished and on your way home. Then you get to the checkout lanes and they are brimming with shoppers. Your plan for a quick exit begins to evaporate.

But all is not lost. For anyone who has ever had to queue at a supermarket, shop, bank or anywhere else, here are some tips from experts for picking the line that will move the fastest.

Get behind a shopper who has a full trolley.

That may seem counterintuitive, but data tells a different story, said Dan Meyer, a former secondary school maths teacher who is the chief academic officer at US technology company, Desmos, where he explores the future of maths, technology and learning.

“Every person requires a fixed amount of time to say hello, pay, say goodbye and clear out of the lane,” he said. His research found all of that takes an average of 41 seconds per person and items to be scanned take about three seconds each. That means that getting in a queue with numerous people who have fewer things can be a poor choice.

Think of it this way: one person with 100 items to be scanned will take an average of almost six minutes to process. If you get in a line with four people who each have 20 items, it will take an average of nearly seven minutes. Those minutes add up.

Richard Larson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is considered the foremost expert on queues, estimated that Americans spend 37 billion hours a year queueing.

Go left for faster service.

Robert Samuel, founder of Same Ole Line Dudes, a New York-based service that offers to queue for other people, said that most people are right-handed and tend to veer to the right.

Look for female cashiers.

“This may seem sexist, but I prefer female cashiers,” Samuel said.

“In my experience they seem to be the most expedient at register transactions and processing.”

AJ Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, suggested checking to see if a cashier was talkative and commenting on every item being scanned. If so, avoid this line “unless there is no one in that line, in which case, just deal with the chatty cashier,” she said.

Study the customers ahead and what they are buying.

It is not just the number of people ahead of you, but their age and what they are buying that can make a difference, Ms Marsden said. Older people may take a bit longer because they can have difficulties that delay the checkout process, such as not understanding how a debit card works, she said.

Also consider the number of different items they are buying, Mr Larson said. Six bottles of the same fizzy drink will go faster than six totally different items, some of which cannot be scanned, such as vegetables, he said.

If you have no irregular items, such as fruit, use a self-service checkout, Mr Meyer said. “You’ll lose the human contact but gain time,” he said.

Choose a single queue that leads to several cashiers.

Not all lines are structured this way, but research has largely shown that this approach, known as a serpentine line, is the fastest. The person at the head of the line goes to the first available window in a system often seen at airports or banks.

Getting into a single line also provides a sense of psychological relief because it eliminates the choice of where to go and second-guessing about the best queue to choose, said Julie Niederhoff, an assistant professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University.

Still, most people prefer to take their chances with parallel lines – individual lines dedicated to a single cashier – even though most of the time they end up picking a slower line, according to Ms Marsden said.

Douglas E Norton, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Villanova University in the US, said studies had typically shown that with three tellers, each serving his or her own line of customers, the waiting time was three times longer on average than a single line leading to an array of tellers.

So why is the less efficient parallel line model used at grocery stores?

“Essentially, nobody wants a huge line of folks with full grocery carts winding (like a serpent) around their store,” he said.

Beware of queues with obstructions.

If you find yourself in a queue that snakes around a corner or where the cashier’s view of the number of customers is obstructed by a wall or a shelf, be prepared for a longer wait, one study found. The study, released in June, noted that obstructions hinder the feedback cashiers get from seeing how their work thins the line.

What can you do to speed up service?

Mr Samuel recommended: always face bar codes toward the cashier. When buying clothes, remove the hangers and pull the tags out for easy scanning.

Remember: a lot of the waiting game is mental. To some degree, waiting is all in your head. Research has found that, on average, people overestimated how long they waited in a line by 36 per cent.

Customers are more concerned with how long a line is than how fast it moves, according to research by Ziv Carmon of the business school Insead and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University. Given a choice between a slow-moving short queue and a fast-moving long one, people will often opt for the short queue, even if the waiting times are identical.

The psychology of queuing has also found that waiting times seem shorter when you are distracted.

Prof Norton recommended talking to the person next to you or reading the magazines in the shop’s racks.

“And try to lose the idea that you are cursed,” he said. “If you remembered the times when it actually went smoothly, you would probably realise that it evens out in the long run.”

– (New York Times Service)