Words On Wednesday

2016-12-21 Ideal Shopping Queue

As Black Friday is far behind us and Christmas approaches, most people have done quite a bit of shopping by this point. Some people love shopping, others hate it, but I have an idea that would make the entire process much more efficient and pleasant.

The Scenario

Picture this: it’s Christmas Eve. You bought all your Christmas gifts back in November. Lo and behold, you woke up this morning and remember that you didn’t pick up milk to bake that macaroni pie for Christmas dinner tomorrow. Regretfully, you stop by Walmart to pick up nothing more than a gallon of milk.

When you get up to the cash register area, there are a grand total of 3 lines open, each of them backed up by probably 10 people or more. You arbitrarily pick one and wait for your queue to move forward. Everybody in front of you has a buggy full of groceries and gifts, but all you have is one item. While someone might be nice enough to let you in front of them, the chances are slim. This place is packed and everybody just wants to check out and go home.

As you wait, you look around at the other 2 lines and they seem to moving at lightning speed. Every few seconds, the carts shift forward a little more. People who got in other lines after you are already checking out. Surely, you can check out faster if you migrate to one of those faster lines. So you pick one of the other 2 lines and take your lone gallon of milk with you.

No sooner than taking your place at the end of this new line, the line you were just in moves forward. And then it moves again. And your new line hasn’t moved an inch since you migrated. Of course, you would pick the line that would take the longest. Is it a little old lady who still uses personal checks to pay for everything? Is it an irate customer, pitching a fit about a trivial matter? Who knows?

Do you shift lines again? Do you just wait it out in your current line, no matter how fast the others are moving? What’s the best course of action in a situation like this. No matter what you do, waiting in a long line for a single product is beyond infuriating.

The Solution

So, what can be done to prevent this sort of maddening queue battle? I have an idea for a solution that seems to be fair for everyone, and mitigates the risk of picking that one unlucky line.

Instead of allowing people to choose between some number of registers with individual queue lines, have a single line feed directly to all of the registers collectively. Everybody would gather into the same line and the person at the head of the line would go to the next register that opens up. This means that if one customer is taking a long time for whatever reason, it only ties up a specific register, not the entire queue.

This sort of system is already in place for several non-retail applications. Voting and many other government agencies have single queue waiting, and have people either stand in line or take a number ticket and wait for their turn. Some retail places use single queues, but they seem to be much less common. Consignment sales for kids clothing, especially, seems to employ a long line feeding to multiple registers. Walmart locations with self-checkout areas usually have one line that opens up to a single area with multiple stations.

What about people who have 1 member of their party wait in line, while others continue to shop? That sort of practice wouldn’t fly in my idea of the ideal queue system. I believe that your queue wait should only begin after you’ve finished your shopping. It should be equally fair to those shopping in a group, as well as individuals who are shopping alone.


This solution has a number of obvious benefits.

First and foremost, this ensures that customers are handled in a true FIFO (first in, first out) fashion. No more dancing between lines or picking one that you hope will move the fastest. The people in line before you will be checked out before you, while those who get in line behind you will come after you. This is the most fair option possible.

Additionally, this system doesn’t waver based on number of products in your cart, how quickly or slowly you check out, or any other variables that result in faster or slower queue times. Whether you have a single item, or a full buggy, you’re checking out according to your appropriate place in line. This eliminates the need for a distinct “speedy checkout” line, as shoppers aren’t inhibited by those who have more items. That gets handled at the register level. This would only become an issue if all registers are filled with large carts, but still shouldn’t necessitate a checkout for fewer items.

The little old lady who pays with check? No longer a problem. The broke college student, counting coins to buy snacks? Doesn’t inhibit you in the slightest. Since these issues would be limited to the individual register, the other Point-of-Sale stations can operate at full efficiency. It doesn’t matter who you’re in line behind, you get to check out at the quickest rate possible.

Oh, and that customer who gets mad that the store won’t price-match an Amazon listing? You get to watch the entertaining spectacle, while still getting closer to the checkout yourself. It’s a win-win, for everyone except the poor employee or manager dealing with an angry shopper.


In certain stores and situations, there can be some problems with my idea.

Depending on the implementation, the party at the head of the line can hold up progress for everyone by ignoring open registers. This happens frequently at the Walmart self-checkout when people aren’t paying attention. Some registers free up, but the customer at the head of the line stays where they are. It’s rude to step around that person, and the person immediately behind them may not want to interject and point them to one of the open spots. An employee may eventually direct them to the next register, but they have more responsibilities than just telling oblivious customers where to go.

In order to combat this situation, stores may elect to hire an employee whose entire job is to connect shoppers with registers. On one hand, this opens up a new position for someone who needs a job. On the other hand, this is more money that a business will have to spend in order to ensure a smooth checkout process. While not a full negative, it is a facet that must be considered in employing such a tactic.

Another issue with a single queue is that the line can get extremely long. Instead of dividing shoppers into multiple lines, everyone must funnel through the same line. During peak hours, this could result in tens or perhaps hundreds of people waiting in one queue. Even if it may not take any longer than waiting in a normal line, such a group of people would appear daunting to the shopper who just wants to purchase their items and leave. Also, this could take up quite a bit of space, and may require the use of dividers in order to keep everyone in order. While these divisions are common in places like theme parks, people may be averse to the same type of crowd management in the grocery store.

While this one line may get long during peak hours, what about when the store is almost empty. If the divisions are permanent, customers would have to meander around the queue area instead of walking directly to a register. This could be remedied, again in the style of theme parks, by having a removable portion or gate that shortens the distance from the queue entrance to the exit. But again, do people want to deal with that when they go shopping?

One of the benefits of this system is that prevents line holders from allowing people in parties to jump ahead of single shoppers. However, what happens if the customer has obeyed the rules and simply forgot a single item? Can they not send a friend to run and grab that item without returning to the end of the line? Is that treated the same as holding a place in line? Do you allow any sort of deviation from the queue, and if so, how much? Perhaps the simplest option is to not allow anyone to leave the queue and return to the same location. However, it would be extremely inconvenient if someone goes to the store for bread, picks up a cart full of items besides bread, and then remembers what they came for immediately before reaching a register.

Though not a permanent issue, but certainly a temporary one, is how confusing this would be to some people at first. We’ve been conditioned to look for the shortest line for so long, that many people would have trouble adjusting to using a single line. In time, people would surely grow accustomed to the system. At first, though, there would definitely be many complaints.


Is this sort of solution feasible? Obviously, it works for the places that already have it in practice. However, that doesn’t mean it works for everywhere. Some businesses would simply never get enough customers at one time to justify making these changes. While it seems ideal in theory, there would be definite growing pains that some companies may consider not worth addressing.

While I would love to see a single line shopping queue employed in more stores, I don’t see it happening for quite some time. And since the Christmas season is probably the only time that stores get ridiculously crowded, it really isn’t an issue for most of the year. That month or so after Thanksgiving, however, is an absolute retail nightmare. I’ll stick with doing my shopping online and having gifts shipped to my door.


Words: 1693 | Characters: 9433 | Sentences: 101

Paragraphs: 29 | Reading Level: 9-10th Grade


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