Sunday, June 24, 2007

Efficiency in the Queue

This is a good news story about a pretty mundane slice of life -- waiting on line at the supermarket. Whole Foods in NYC has mastered the art of the bank-style single-line with multiple cashiers. The secret is to have lots of cashiers -- so the line moves quickly, and you still get all the efficiencies in space, time, consumer satisfaction, etc. of a one-line system.

This is news to me -- I shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in Philly, which is still rocking inefficient "traditional" or "suburban" queues, where you get to guess which line (and which cashier) might get you through most quickly. Trader Joe's on Market St. is actually particularly good at opening new lines when the lines grow to epic proportions.

But the little things I liked about this article were the pocket insights into shopping psychology (“We have good clocks in our heads for roughly three minutes... Once we get beyond that, time expands wildly. If somebody is [waiting] for 4.5 minutes and you ask them how long they waited, they will say 15 minutes”) and corporate anxieties ("Lines can also hurt retailers. Starbucks spooked investors last summer when it said long lines for its cold beverages scared off customers. Wal-Mart, too, has said that slow checkouts have turned off many.")

Oh, to be a queue management guru, a pioneer of the graceful and fickle art of the efficient line, sought after by elite businesses to optimize the intersection of space, time, shopping, and the soul. Take a number.

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