Design Puzzles II

2 July 2007 at 4:33 pm 5 comments

| Steven Postrel |

When I last posted on whether apparent inefficiencies in the design of objects and institutions were real opportunities or only mirages, there were many well-informed and thoughtful comments. One of the issues I addressed was the use of multiple queues at checkout counters, despite their theoretical inferiority to a single queue where the next available checker gets the next customer in line.

Many readers explained why it wouldn’t be possible to have a single queue — not enough room at the front of the store, long lines scare off shoppers even if they’re fast, less impulse buying, etc. Now comes an article describing the wonders of single-queue checkout at Whole Foods in Manhattan. Apparently, none of these postulated problems is an insuperable barrier to creating an efficient checkout system consistent with theory. (In fact, Whole Foods put in the single queue partly to save space in the store.) So we know at least that there is no show-stopping reason why single queues can’t be used.

It should be noted that Whole Foods also put on a lot of extra checkers, which contaminates measurement of the speed effect of single queues. And of course, basket size may differ across chains. In fact, the article goes on to make an admirable stab at empiricism, measuring a small sample of checkout times at various grocery stores in the city. Interestingly, the fastest checkout (2:46) was at a store with a hybrid system of one line per two registers, but the sample was pretty small there (only 8 people in line). Trader Joe’s, which had a single queue for all of its registers, was a painful, tortoise-like 26:19 (n=81 people in line), whereas Whole Foods blazed away at 3:47 (n=51). So the number of checkers and other factors are likely to be at least as important as the organization of queues.

Entry filed under: Former Guest Bloggers, Institutions, Management Theory.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. coyote  |  3 July 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Fry’s Electronics, a super-super sized version of Best Buy, uses a single line feeding multiple cashiers, and it works great. An added bonus is the longer single line gives more shelf space per shopper for impulse-buy racks. The first time you see it, though, a long line there can be intimidating, but it becomes clear fast that it moves quickly

  • 2. Steve Portigal  |  4 July 2007 at 9:52 am

    I wonder if there’s a cost associated with the challenge for the customer at the head of the queue (“on deck”) in knowing which counter is open. Some Fry’s (as in some banks, or airline ticket counters, or immigration lines) have counters to the right and left of the front of the line. Fry’s set of cashiers runs to the vanishing point.

    As a customer, you can feel this panic when you are next, looking right and left rapidly, trying to see what’s going on. Fearing the person behind you annoyedly telling you “go!” Or hearing the repeated “Next customer!”

    Fry’s uses large number signs that cashiers hold up. I’ve seen a lighting system with arrows at the head of the queue and teller station lights. Or the expensive but most effective solution is the queue wrangler who stands at the front and guides you (“Number 3, please. Wait please. Number 21, please”). Airports seem good at being dynamic with their systems depending on crowds and staffing levels.

  • 3. Mitch H.  |  4 July 2007 at 12:42 pm

    I run registration for an event with about 22,000 attendees, in which I have to process ~10,000-12,000 people in five hours. I have room & manpower for about thirty or so counters. Clearly, the option of running thirty lines with ten thousand members in a reasonable space is impractical. Likewise, the choice of running a single line within the space allotted is also inefficient, as the time to walk from one end of the booth area to the other is significant – in excess of five minutes at a reasonable pace.

    I have chosen to run a hybrid line-to-counter solution, in which the main line is divided into three second-stage lines once the members reach the lobby proper, feeding into serpentines. At the head of each serpentine, nearest to each of the three clusters of registration booths, is a line-control staffer who encourages the members to move forward as appropriate to “feed” each individual booth’s queue, preferentially stacking one or two groups waiting at each booth. This cuts down the latency inherent in the time it takes to walk from the head of the serpentines to the booths furthest from their “own” serpentine head.

    This solution has allowed us to process our 10,000-12,000 initial line well inside of the five-hour window for two years running, even given an unusual number of registration database errors and conflicts. The down side is that it does require an active staff presence “in the field”, identifying underserved booths & encouraging the prospective members to move forward *before* the registrars are actually finished with their current transactions.

  • 4. patmcgraw  |  8 July 2007 at 7:09 am

    Best Buy uses a single line feeding multiple cashiers and from my perspective it’s dehumanizing (feel more like cattle waiting in line in a poorer version of The Magic Kingdom) and it seems to promote a more open discourse amongst my fellow cattle (typically about how they wish the line was shorter and that there were more cashiers).

    No one looks at their watch and times it. It looks long so it must be long. And if it if is long, then customer bitching becomes more vocal.

    One other thing…once people get to the head of the line, the stress over where to go is amazing to watch. And it’s made especially more fun by cashiers that finish with a customer and then fail to call you forward (instead, they hunch over and pretend to be busy on stacking bags). There’s nothing more upsetting then going to the cashier and being told to return to the line because the cashier is now on break…and you know that the person that is currently first in line is going to be pissed about moving back to #2.

  • 5. Matt Moore  |  10 July 2007 at 4:23 am

    My local Whole Foods uses a hybrid system of single queue for express (7 items or 10 items or some such) and pick a horse for filled carts. This seems like a good compromise: those most likely to impulse buy (families buying lots of stuff) go to the classic line with the magazine racks, the store didn’t have to figure out the logistics of a long line of carts, and a line doesn’t look nearly as long looking if everyone in it has 3 things.

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