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How to Pick the Fastest Line at the Supermarket | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Inside a Whole Foods in Brooklyn. Credit Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

You dash into the supermarket for a few necessities. You figure it will be 10 minutes — tops — before you are done 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 stand in line (or if you are a New Yorker, you stand on line) at a supermarket, retailer, 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 cart

That may seem counterintuitive, but data tell a different story, said Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher who is the chief academic officer at Desmos, where he explores the future of math, 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 in an email. His research found all of that takes an average of 41 seconds per person and items to be rung up take about three seconds each.

That means getting in line with numerous people who have fewer things can be a poor choice.

Think of it this way: One person with 100 items to be rung up 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 waiting in lines.

Go left for faster service

Robert Samuel, founder of Same Ole Line Dudes, a New York-based service that will stand in line for you, said in an email 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,” Mr. Samuel wrote. “In my experience they seem to be the most expedient at register transactions and processing.”

A. J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., 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 in an email.

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, Professor Marsden said. Older people will 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, Professor Larson said. Six bottles of the same soda 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 produce, use a self-service checkout, Mr. Meyer said. “You’ll lose the human contact but gain time,” he said.

Choose a single line 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 line 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, Professor Marsden said.

Douglas E. Norton, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Villanova University, said studies had typically shown that with three tellers, each serving his or her own line of customers, the wait 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 in an email.

Beware of lines with obstructions

If you find yourself in a line 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, by Professors Niederhoff and Masha Shunko of the University of Washington and Yaroslav Rosokha of Purdue University, 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.

• Use the buddy system at the express lanes. Split the items so you each stay within the maximum number allowed and then get out the door quicker.

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 percent.

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

The psychology of queuing has also found that waits seem shorter when you are distracted. Professor Norton recommended talking to the person next to you or reading the magazines in the store’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 realize that it evens out in the long run.”

(The New York Times)