News Stories

How to Outmaneuver Those Long Checkout Lines

People are avoiding long lines at the cash register by shopping online this year. A recent survey shows that almost half of all US shoppers say they plan to buy gifts online this holiday season, up from about a third last year. In order to get more Christmas customers into their premises, store managers are trying to make potential shoppers happier while they're waiting in line.

Meanwhile, the shoppers would like to know the mathematics of shopping efficiency--is it better to stay in the same line or jump to a shorter one? Mathematicians and psychologists are trying to understand how people perceive waiting in line.

Some of us quickly become impatient quickly and fail to take into notice key indicators that may slow a line down, such as people in the front asking questions or digging coupons out of their wallets. Mothers shopping with young children are also perceived to be slower checking out. Waiting at the cash register can be an emotionally fraught experience when we think we've chosen what turns out to be the slow line. Consumers feel less stressed when three's an employee or an electronic screen near the front of the line to indicate the next open register (some banks have adopted this method as well).

And stores have discovered that customers want to choose their own line rather than wait in a single line for the next available register, as so many stores are now have us do, even though that set-up has proven to be faster. Different stores are trying different variations on the line: At Walt Disney stores, employees in Disney costumes entertain the waiting customers. They're also prescanning items for customers in line, so they're ready to check out when they finally reach the register.

In Apple stores, employees roam the aisles with hand-held devices that can ring up purchases. Other stores are putting in more self-checkout machines. Stores have tried to solve line issues in various ways, including copying the way Apple Inc. stores use hand-held devices to ring up purchases anywhere in the store. 

The retail consultancy firm Envirosell has timed shoppers standing in line to find out how real wait times compared with how long shoppers FELT they waited. Marketing strategist Narayan Janakiraman has learned that shoppers will often abandon a line that might take between one and 10 minutes to get through after the first two or three minutes if they feel it isn't moving fast enough. However, they often misperceive the time they've actually been waiting, and after standing in a line for three minutes, most customers perceive their wait time as becoming multiplied with each passing minute..

In the Wall Street Journal, Ray A. Smith quotes Envirosell's Paco Underhill as saying, "So if the person was actually waiting four minutes, the person said 'I've been waiting five or six minutes.' If they got to five minutes, they would say 'I've been waiting 10 minutes.'"

Shoppers have developed their own strategies and superstitions for getting to the cash register ahead of everyone else. Smith quotes store customer Rebecca Mecomber as saying, "Young male cashiers are usually faster but are very sloppy and careless when they bag items. Middle-age ladies are slower but take better care of glass objects."

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