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Long Line for a Shorter Wait at the Supermarket
Posted by: manu_s 10:43pm, Friday, 22 June 2007
For its first stores here, Whole Foods, the gourmet supermarket, directs customers to form serpentine single lines that feed into a passel of cash registers.

Banks have used a similar system for decades. But supermarkets, fearing a long line will scare off shoppers, have generally favored the one-line-per-register system.

By 7 p.m. on a weeknight, the lines at each of the four Whole Foods stores in Manhattan can be 50 deep, but they zip along faster than most lines with 10 shoppers.

Because people stand in the same line, waiting for a register to become available, there are no “slow” lines, delayed by a coupon-counting customer or languid cashier. And since Whole Foods charges premium prices for its organic fare, it can afford to staff dozens of registers, making the line move even faster.

manu_s says: I wish more stores used this system; there's no frustration like choosing a slow checkout line.

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Posted by: stephentyrone 2:04pm, Saturday, 23 June 2007
All the supermarkets in England (or at least all I went into in a 3 month period) are setup this way. It's fantastic. Jen and I have been wondering ever since why we don't have this in the US.
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Posted by: cog 10:08am, Sunday, 24 June 2007
The chair of my CS department forwarded this around with the title "NY Times, Whole Foods discover queueing theory".

That this system is faster is blindingly obvious to anyone with an ounce of mathematical intuition; it must surely be one of the oldest results in queueing theory. The layout and design of retail stores is a subject that's been studied in great detail, so I'm not really sure whether stupidity or some other reason caused stores to avoid doing this before. The article suggests that stores were reluctant to create the appearance of a long line. Maybe that was a factor.

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Posted by: N 9:46am, Monday, 25 June 2007
In eliminating choice, the new system helps those who consistently pick the slow lines and hurt those who pride themselves on picking the fastest lines. This is probably best for society in general. Unlike CS queueing theory where you have dumb packets arriving in queues, here you've got a range of shoppers with different line choosing strategies: 1) Random, 2) fewest number of people, and 3) those with more exotic systems (remembering who's a fast ringer-upper, looking at qty of goods being scanned, difficulty of goods being scanned [prepackaged vs veggies], ...) that may get them the edge. The single line strategy helps groups 1 and 2 since they are in the majority, but hurts the successful ones in group 3).
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Posted by: ckarlof 1:19pm, Thursday, 28 June 2007
Personally, I'm a 3), but I would much rather spend my time thinking about other things. On average, I can pick a good line, but when I suffer a bad beat, I can go on tilt. You never know when someone is going to pull out 20 expired coupons or demand a lengthy price check. Basically, you never "win" -- you only lose, and I'd rather not play the game.

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