Design of Check-Out Lines

I was in Wholefoods on Sunday around 4:00 p.m. Foolishly I did not look at the length of the check out lines before I started to gather the things I had come for. I finished with 5 items in my basket and headed for the express line (maximum 15 items). In my local Wholefoods there are 4 of these and about 8 of the 'as much as you can load into a trolley' lines. Each check out station has its own line so you have to guess which is going to go most quickly.

In the event I judged each line to have a wait of around 30 – 40 minutes. I stood in my chosen line for 15 minutes trying to be an interested observer in the line process (who reads the magazines, who tells their boyfriend story loudly on their cell-phone, who munches stuff from their trolley – which may be unaccountable for by the time it gets to the till, who is texting or maybe emailing like crazy, who leaves their partner in line and goes off to cull more items, etc, etc). But after 15 minutes of this I got frustrated and left my basket with its 5 items on a shelf in the store. This was a pity as the items were all perishable and were probably trashed.

Not being a mathematical modeler I don't know if there is some formula to apply either to choose the quickest line, or to design check-out lines that are fast and efficient. What was interesting was that my Wholefoods (poor) experience followed my Enterprise (good) experience. What could Wholefoods learn from Enterprise and line control experts? Here are some ideas:

  1. Have only one line with each person stepping forward to the next available check out person (as in Trader Joe's, airline check-ins, USPS, and Enterprise).

  2. If the line is evidently going to take more than 10 minutes to get to the check out agent have someone combing the line to pull out people with fewer than 5 items, or screeching children, and sending them to a different, dedicated agent. But only people the comber pulls out can go to that one.

  3. Have a manager come round the lines and apologize for the wait, and/or give random small goodies to people (in Enterprise's case it was bottles of water).

  4. Offer people something to do while they're waiting e.g. (in Wholefoods case) a guess the carbon footprint of the tea you are buying or similar, or solicit information from them. They are captive in the line – they could be filling out a customer service survey. Airlines do this to passengers on their flights.

  5. Recognize that people will leave and have a 'leave your full trolley' here point so that items can quickly be put back on the shelves, or if perishable or idiosyncratic (like a self assembled meal from the deli bar) offer it immediately as a 'mystery' shop at a token price $1 say with the amount going to a non-profit.

  6. Have a service where people can leave their full trolley and come back for it later in the evening, or better, they leave their full trolley and the contents are delivered to their door. They then pay at the door. This may not work if they refuse to pay or deny ever having been in the supermarket (even though they have given a delivery address).

  7. Have people who are willing to stand in line for a small fee while the shoppers go off for coffee or to read the paper.

I am sure there are other ideas. I guess the store manager's decision rests on whether it matters that people get frustrated with standing in line and then abandoning full trollies, and what the added value would be to doing something imaginative and innovative to design more effective check-out lines.

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