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Queueing Theory for the holiday season
December 26, 2010 3:53 AM   Subscribe

Whether you're buying gifts or returning gifts; a holiday message: Why other lines always move faster than your line.
posted by twoleftfeet (54 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I should have mentioned that Bill the Engineer Guy has a bunch of other interesting videos. Everything I know about Coca-Cola and levers I learned from Bill.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:13 AM on December 26, 2010


It explains why other lines move faster two times out of three (with the 3-till example). But not why mine is aaaaaaalways the slowest. [I know I know, it isn't really.]
posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:51 AM on December 26, 2010


Never queue behind me unless you've brought a book. I figure it's a fair trade for my parking mojo.
posted by arcticseal at 4:58 AM on December 26, 2010


So, loved that video, thanks! Also, this is why I love Trader Joes and Whole Foods -- single line theory!
posted by thinkpiece at 5:24 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Instead they should make a single line feed multiple cashiers. For three cashiers its about three times faster than having a line for each cashier. . . . Most stores don't do this, though, because it bothers customers psychologically: Customers prefer unwisely to jockey for position.

The emerging field of behavioural economics focuses almost exclusively on designing human systems to correct for systemic irrationalities like this. The intent - for example in the energy bill design changes championed by Robert Cialdini - is not only to change the system but to develop messaging around the changes to get people to embrace them.

I'm increasingly convinced it is uncovering the last, best hope for modern society. We need systems that overcome that mess of misconceptions, biases and flat-out falsehoods that idiots call "common sense." At a deep psychological and cognitive level, we just don't have a clue what's best for us.
posted by gompa at 6:10 AM on December 26, 2010 [31 favorites]


A friend of mine has a "system" wherein she picks out the "smartest-looking" cashier's line. I'm forced to confess it works reasonably well.

This is why I like to shop at my unionized grocery store ... turnover is low enough that you can get to know which cashiers are good and which ones don't know what a turnip is and have to call produce for help.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:15 AM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Related: Princeton physicist J. Richard Gott III uses Copernican theory to explain the reason that you so often find yourself in the longest line at the supermarket. The reason is that there is nothing special about you. You are just a random person waiting to check out. When you choose a random person from those waiting to check out you are more likely to get one from a long line. So be happy; you're not special.
posted by subgear at 6:22 AM on December 26, 2010


A friend of mine has a "system" wherein she picks out the "smartest-looking" cashier's line

It would be interesting to know what her criteria for "smartest-looking" is. Age, gender, race, level of attractiveness, glasses or no glasses, etc.

Just in general life I tend to get thrown off by thinking geeky-looking people in glasses are smarter than they are. Unfortunately, I've given some real dolts the benefit of the doubt based on that.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:23 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine has a "system" wherein she picks out the "smartest-looking" cashier's line

It would be interesting to know what her criteria for "smartest-looking" is. Age, gender, race, level of attractiveness, glasses or no glasses, etc.


My criteria for cashiers is all about chattiness. I prefer the quiet ones that just work, rather than ones that engage the customer. Much quicker. But I also consider the age of the people in the line. Older people often have trouble paying, use checks, have 2000 coupons, etc. so I like to avoid them in lines.
posted by tommasz at 6:44 AM on December 26, 2010


Not that I want to stand in line for an hour, but I'm not going to let my blood pressure raise because it's going to take me an extra 5 minutes to check out if I happened to pick the slow lane.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:47 AM on December 26, 2010


Eyebrows McGee: a turnip is one thing, a portobella mushroom is another.

thinkpiece: i've never been in a trader joe's, but the whole foods in the sunny south have multiple cashiers, multiple lines. and i always get in the wait-iest one.
posted by msconduct at 6:52 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


The law of lines: Waiting, like matter, can neither be created nor destroyed
posted by any major dude at 6:52 AM on December 26, 2010


I'm increasingly convinced it is uncovering the last, best hope for modern society.

You can't engineer around stooopid.
posted by spitbull at 6:54 AM on December 26, 2010


actually the places that tend to have the quickest lines are where the floor people are trained to open up a cashier at the moment they notice any type of bottleneck. It never ceases to bother me when I see store personnel standing around during a busy queue while closed registers go unmanned.
posted by any major dude at 6:57 AM on December 26, 2010


the whole foods in the sunny south have multiple cashiers, multiple lines. and i always get in the wait-iest one.

I once waited in line at a WF while the old lady in front of me left mid-order to walk back to the deli counter for something she'd forgotten to pick up. She was gone probably 10 minutes. I'd have left if I hadn't already unloaded a ton of stuff onto the conveyor. It's extremely rare that I ever think of beating the shit out of an old person, but goddamn...
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:31 AM on December 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


"It would be interesting to know what her criteria for "smartest-looking" is. Age, gender, race, level of attractiveness, glasses or no glasses, etc."

She claimed it was the "spark in their eyes." The ones whose faces said "this is dull, I'm bored" she would avoid. Her "system" never worked very well for me, but she did have a pretty unerring instinct for the short line, so perhaps she's really seeing some spark in their eyes.

(And I wondered the same thing, about whether she was picking based on race or gender or whatever, but she was pretty ecumenical in her choices. Even "speaks decent English" was not important to her.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:42 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Instead they should make a single line feed multiple cashiers. For three cashiers its about three times faster than having a line for each cashier. . . . Most stores don't do this, though, because it bothers customers psychologically: Customers prefer unwisely to jockey for position.

I haven't been to a U.S. military commissary (supermarket) in about 10 years, but I recall that they always had a single line funnelling multiple registers, and it worked great. Not only that but you didn't have 85% of the checkout stations closed, which seems to be the norm at most supermarkets and department stores.
posted by crapmatic at 7:50 AM on December 26, 2010


spitbull: You can't engineer around stooopid.

One big line. Everybody takes a number, or waits bank-style for the next available register.

It's the only truly fair system.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:54 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


but she was pretty ecumenical in her choices
I apologize for picking (rather large) nits but huh?
posted by mistersquid at 8:30 AM on December 26, 2010


Princeton physicist J. Richard Gott III uses Copernican theory to explain the reason that you so often find yourself in the longest line ... When you choose a random person from those waiting to check out you are more likely to get one from a long line. So be happy; you're not special.

Seems more like a sly joke than a genuine explanation; he's choosing from the set of people currently in line at the moment of selection, not the set of all people who go through checkout over time. The latter represents the set all of us belong to as we sit here thinking about our overall experiences. Since people choosing a line gravitate toward shorter ones, and longer lines suggest a slower register clerk (processing fewer people in a given amount of time), the odds over any reasonably lengthy sampling period of a person having been through a shorter line seem better than a long one.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:42 AM on December 26, 2010


Apu: Mrs. Simpson, the express line is the fastest line not always.
That old man up front, he is starved for attention. He will talk
the cashier’s head off.
Abe: {Ah, there’s an interesting story behind this nickel. In 1957, I
remember it was, I got up in the morning and made myself a piece of
toast. I set the toaster to three—medium brown...
Apu: Let’s go to…that line.
Marge: But that’s the longest.
Apu: Yes, but look: all pathetic single men. Only cash, no chitchat.
posted by TwoWordReview at 8:50 AM on December 26, 2010 [18 favorites]


When faced with this situation I scan the lines for potential delays.

Senior citizens: Bless them, but they always seem to have questions, use checks, and/or dig deep for "exact change"

Coupon warriors: Questions and arguments.

Dual cart users: Nuf said

The mom with 3 kids: I feel your pain, but hey.

People carrying sale flyers: see coupon warriors.

This plan ain't perfect , but I feel like I'm being proactive when I use it.
posted by lobstah at 8:51 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


actually the places that tend to have the quickest lines are where the floor people are trained to open up a cashier at the moment they notice any type of bottleneck

Dude, where do you shop? Opening a register would be good, but opening up a cashier just to speed things along is evil and depraved - and messy.

My method is to always pick the other line.
posted by Elmore at 9:31 AM on December 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


Dual cart users: Nuf said

Well, a lot of dual cart users tend to be loaded up on potato chips, TV dinners, diapers, sodas, and other stuff that's in bloated packaging. If there's cans, then things do tend to slow down. For a super slow line, I look for clothing items and lots of fruits & vegetables.
posted by crapmatic at 9:33 AM on December 26, 2010


I once waited in line at a WF while the old lady in front of me left mid-order to walk back to the deli counter for something she'd forgotten to pick up. She was gone probably 10 minutes.

And she probably paid by check when she came back, right? A check she didn't even start to write out until a minute or so after the clerk totaled her purchases? In a checkbook she didn't even try to dig out of her purse until the last possible moment?

Fucking checks.
posted by bibliowench at 9:33 AM on December 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


All jokes aside, I really have been using Apu's method of young single men/women lines since I saw that episode as a kid. Very rarely fails.
posted by mannequito at 10:31 AM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am great at picking lines. My line is usually the fastest.
posted by !Jim at 10:32 AM on December 26, 2010


I always use the self-checkout lines to eliminate the cashier from the equation altogether. I then try to avoid old people, who are more likely to get confused by the machine and use a lot of coupons. It usually works.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:33 AM on December 26, 2010


Drop out on seven! I'm on seven! ...shit, they're paying with luncheon vouchers! I'm back on four!
posted by aihal at 11:01 AM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I always use the self-checkout lines to eliminate the cashier from the equation altogether. I then try to avoid old people, who are more likely to get confused by the machine and use a lot of coupons.

Local demographics can come into play, too. At one of the two or three stores I'm usually at, it's important to avoid being in line behind freshly-minted college students who are out trying to stock a pantry for themselves for the first time.
posted by gimonca at 11:02 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always get into the longest-looking line. I'm going to end up in that one anyway, so why try to cheat the system? Sure beats going to the grocery store with my mom and having her go, "Get into the other line! I'll wait in one line and you wait in the other!"
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:07 AM on December 26, 2010


If there are actually significant waits, then I look and take a quick guess about which line's patron's baskets are the emptiest and choose that one. Never switch once you've chosen.

If not, then I just pick the most attractive cashier.
posted by cmoj at 11:19 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


You also have to consider the people who are in line.

Some of these princples are covered in The Simpsons episode where Apu gets fired from the Kwik-E-Mart.
posted by triceryclops at 11:43 AM on December 26, 2010


Wow, I need to refresh the page before waiting three hours to reply. Lesson learned.
posted by triceryclops at 11:45 AM on December 26, 2010


I find that if you want to save time in line, just go to the most expensive local/natural foods store. The lines are faster because most of the sorts of people that everyone keeps complaining about won't shop there (coupon fanatics, single moms, old people on fixed incomes, etc).
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:46 AM on December 26, 2010


opening up a cashier just to speed things along is evil and depraved - and messy.

I shop at MERCATOR JOSEPHVS. If a queue is longer than regulation length, they put every tenth register operator to the sword. You'd think having fewer registers would make the queues longer. You'd be underestimating the power of carefully crafted incentive plans.

Also, I love the quirky package for their organic garum.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:54 AM on December 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


Best Buy uses the one line/multiple cashiers system. And it's still as slow as shit. Probably because each cashier has to try to sell you magazines and life insurance or a star named after you or something. And then they flog the insurance again in case the floor guy didn't beat that to death enough already.
posted by Splunge at 11:57 AM on December 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


[NOT CONFIRMATION BIAS-IST]
posted by dhartung at 11:58 AM on December 26, 2010


I wonder if it would work if stores used the single line strategy but then, in order to dispel the "loook at the siiize of this liiiineee!" feeling, put little floor stickers or signs that tell you you're "2 minutes away from a cashier". I'm sure they could estimate something like that pretty accurately with such short lines.

However that could trigger the "I'm on line at Disneyland" feeling which would just make the lines feel longer, so that might not be the best idea.
posted by Defenestrator at 12:21 PM on December 26, 2010


Or there's the Whole Foods solution, three lines (so each is shorter) for 20 registers.

I go for the line with the most single peopke with the emptiest baskets. I think I do pretty well.
posted by subdee at 12:50 PM on December 26, 2010


Best Buy and Fry's Electronics have this sorted (other problems of theirs notwithstanding).
posted by chimaera at 1:06 PM on December 26, 2010


Very appropriate topic for today!

The problem with the single feeder line and multiple tills is that someone will always walk past the line and take the next available till, ignoring the glares and mumbled comments from everyone they just jumped past. It's happened to me twice this month, but the last time I finally said something to the woman who walked in front of me. She turned around and insisted that "there was no sign" indicating a single line, never mind the ten people in line. "There's no sign" she repeated three times. Then the cashier backed me up, and the woman had to wait while I went in front of her. She looked so pissed, and I was so happy. Finally some justice!
posted by Kevin Street at 1:29 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


YES! A fucking transcript.
posted by Eideteker at 2:07 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


If not, then I just pick the most attractive cashier.

This ... or the line with the cutest people waiting in it. Don't submit yourself to the process, transcend it. That mutual buzz now and then ... getting to the front is the last thing you care about.
posted by Twang at 4:39 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


All jokes aside, I really have been using Apu's method of young single men/women lines since I saw that episode as a kid. Very rarely fails.

Plus you get to hang around with young single people.
posted by brundlefly at 4:41 PM on December 26, 2010


Somedays I pick the cashier who looks the happiest or the least stressed.

Because the wait time may vary for any of a number of reasons, but at least I won't have to deal with a grouchy cashier at the end of it.

(Yes, I know there are 1001 valid reasons for cashiers to be grumpy. They are underpaid and overworked. They have my sympathies. But I try to minimise my exposure to IRL grouchy people where possible, because it makes things easier for me.)
posted by with the singing green stars as our guide at 7:39 PM on December 26, 2010


These videos are like yummy popcorn! I swear most Ted Talks could be summarized in to a lecture similar to this person's videos.
posted by Theta States at 9:46 PM on December 26, 2010


I was at Sears a while ago. I grabbed a couple of shirts and as I approached the cashier, there was one person at the counter who was just completing her transaction. Right as I approached, she gathered up her stuff and walked away. I stepped right up to the teller and set my shirts on the counter. The teller looked at me with a scowl, gestured behind me and told me curtly that I needed to get in line. I turned around, and to my embarrassment, across the wide walkway, hidden between the merchandise counters, was a line of about 8 to 10 people that I neglected to see, all of whom, understandably, giving me dirty looks. I apologized to the cashier, and moved aside.

I then walked over to the linen department, and sure enough, no line! Swipe my card; bag it up, and outa there. The most enjoyable part was walking past that queue of sneering people with my bag in hand.

I'm surprised that people don't realize that any department can ring up a purchase from any other department (Although I doubt that I could purchase my shirts at the automotive service counter, so YMMV).
posted by Krapulous at 11:09 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I run into situations where I have to pick one of several lines to wait in, there are two factors I focus on: the amount of product per customer in each line and the general look of the cashier. Of course, the ideal line is an express checkout of ten items or less with a happy and friendly cashier.

Strangely enough, it's been more than once I have found an instantly available cashier yet as soon as I stepped up I instantly regretted picking that one cashier. Either they are very slow or very miserable looking, as if having to serve another customer was more annoying than having to take an enema.

Did I mention that I shop at Wal-Mart a lot?
posted by Schwartz_User at 6:52 AM on December 27, 2010


Krapulous: "I'm surprised that people don't realize that any department can ring up a purchase from any other department"

This.

If a clothes shop has a men's floor and a women's floor, you will never catch me standing in line on the women's floor.
posted by the latin mouse at 1:55 PM on December 27, 2010


Also, you're likely to pick the shortest line, which means it was the fastest moving line in the near past. Ripe for regression to the mean, I'd say.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:18 PM on December 27, 2010


I've been waiting days to post my comment in this post.
posted by Elmore at 3:16 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have you got self-service tills in supermarkets yet? Adds a whole other dimension to the hell that we call grocery shopping.
posted by Grangousier at 3:36 AM on December 28, 2010


Mental Wimp: Also, you're likely to pick the shortest line, which means it was the fastest moving line in the near past. Ripe for regression to the mean, I'd say

Sometimes it means that the one person in the line has been there fr half an hour, doing multiple separate orders and using all kinds of coupons and buying 3 carts full of stuff.

And then her little girl farted up a storm right when it was our turn to move up, so gross.

Amount of items per customer can be a better indicator of line speed than number of customers.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:45 AM on December 29, 2010


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