The Secret of Quicker Check-Out Lines

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — While doing your last-minute holiday shopping this week, there’s no doubt you’ll probably have to contend with some very long lines, but the above video offers some hints about which stores may have the most painless check-out lines.

In this short clip, Bill Hammack, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois Urbana, explains that the most efficient queuing systems are those where customers wait in a single line to check out, rather than funneling into dozens of check-out lanes.

The reason, simply put, is that when stores have multiple lines, consumers are more likely to experience longer delays if the customer in front of you takes too much time at the cash register. That’s because you have nowhere else to go. By comparison, if you wait in a single long line that feeds into multiple cash registers, any delay at a cash register will have less impact on you since there are other cashiers available.

Indeed, Hammack found that a single line feeding into three different check out counters will move three times quicker on average than having three separate check out lines.

In a sense, Hammack’s argument is actually a defense of the notoriously long lines you find at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and department stores like Filene’s Basement, where customers wait in one line rather than choosing from multiple check-out aisles.

"Most stores don’t do this though because it bothers customers psychologically,” Hammack says in the video. “Customers prefer unwisely to jockey for position” between multiple lines rather than stay put in a single long line.

In the video, Hammack also provides proof for one belief that many shoppers have long held to be true: No matter which check-out line you choose, the other ones seem to move faster.

According to Hammack, if you assume there are three lines, there are six possible combinations for how long it will take each to finish, and your line will only finish first in two of the six. So, more often than not, another line will actually move faster than yours.

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