We all accept the grocery store line struggle as a fact of life, but what if it didn’t have to be that way? 

Five Thirty Eight’s DataLab explored this possibility in-depth in response to a reader-submitted question about whether the express lane at the grocery store is always the fastest.

The answer offered by DataLab’s Mona Chalabi may actually surprise you (unless you’re a longtime student of queueing theory): single lines are actually better than multiple, separate lines.

Her entire piece explores the question in-depth, and is well worth reading.

Here are some of the key points:

grocery store wait times

Graph: Statistical Research via DataLab

Chalabi quotes professional data analyst Wes Stevenson, who ran some simulations with a model into which he’d placed 10 cashiers and an average wait time of three minutes. He found two important things:

  • single-line wait times are more predictable
  • single lines = shorter wait time

But There’s A Problem

waiting in line

Unfortunately, human behavior doesn’t always (or often) behave like computer models. What about that angry guy who sees a mile-long line, throws down his full basket of Hot Pockets and storms out of the store without buying? Or what about that dude who insists on paying for milk with a check, and holds up the whole line?

Chalabi observes that these unpredictable, everyday behaviors make our multiple-line reality make more sense. That’s because one more eternal source of internal human conflict comes into play.

Perceived vs. Actual Wait Times

waiting nicki

Chalabi paraphrases Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping to offer this observation: the longer we’re waiting in line, the longer we think we’ve been waitingFor example, if we wait in line for five actual minutes, we believe we’ve really waited for 10.

That our perceptions aren’t reality doesn’t matter when it comes to customer satisfaction. So, grocery stores that want to keep customers happy must also factor our perceptions into their queue systems.

Unfortunately, while a single line may provide better numbers in terms of wait time, perception might make us run away screaming at seeing only one checkout lane open.

Sneaky Strategizing

waiting mr burns

That’s where queue-management consultancy firms like Lavi Industries Inc. come into play. Chalabi spoke with director of marketing Perry Kuklin for her piece, and he explained a few tactics that some of his customers use to increase customer waiting satisfaction.

The one we’re all familiar with at the grocery store: keeping us distracted with magazines, snacks, and other “in-line merchandising” to peruse.

But the really sneaky tactic involved a Houston airport, not a grocery store. Airline passengers weren’t happy about baggage claim wait times, even after they’d significantly improved. So the airport actually moved the arrival gates so that passengers had to walk a longer distance to get to baggage claim. Complaints apparently dropped to almost nothing.

You can read Chalabi’s entire report here, where she breaks everything down in greater detail.

We also wonder what happens when you take self-checkout lanes into account. One thing’s certain: since those lines tend to move more quickly, some retailers were apparently upset about significant impulse sales losses earlier this year. If you’re flying through that self-checkout line, who has time to think about that Snickers?

[via DataLab]

RELATED: 9 Ways to Beat Grocery Stores’ Psychological Games and Keep Your Cash