December 27, 2005


Retailers take steps to keep lines moving: New tactics ease a holiday peeve (Jenn Abelson, December 27, 2005, Boston Globe)

Fixing the problem of long lines has never been at the top of the agenda for retailers. For one thing, they know Americans are used to standing in line: By some industry estimates, we spend an average of two to three years of our lives waiting in line at airports, grocery stores, and traffic jams.

Ever notice how department stores and supermarkets place gum, candy, and other items at the register? That's because the longer the customer waits in line, the more likely he or she is to purchase something else. Or so the theory has gone.

But a growing number of consumer complaints -- along with competition from line-free Internet shopping -- has prompted retailers to buckle down when it comes to curbing unruly waits.

''When our customer is ready to check out, they're ready to check out," said Rick Webb, Wal-Mart's vice president of customer experience. ''They're not very tolerant of waiting in lines."

As Gillis, who bailed out of the Wal-Mart line, put it: ''After struggling through the crowds, I am fairly well frazzled by the time I go to pay. So, to then see that a store may have 15 checkout lanes but only four cashiers working, yes, I am bothered by the lines."

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, recently began expanding ''line rushing" technology, a mobile scanner that allows employees to check out merchandise while customers wait in line. Customers receive a print-out with a bar code, so cashiers only need to scan the paper and take payment.

Apple stores take mobile technology one step farther. Last month, Apple introduced hand-held checkout devices that allow people to pay anywhere in the store, and customers are e-mailed their receipt. IKEA, a Swedish furniture chain with a new store in Stoughton, allows people to pay with a credit or debit card while waiting in line.

This year, Wal-Mart also started using forecasting technology that helps predict in 15-minute intervals how many registers are needed, based on past sales. To better train new workers hired for the holiday season, Wal-Mart began putting cash registers in the employees' back room so that they can practice.

In recent months, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls started introducing the line queue concept, which puts customers in one big line that snakes back and forth rather than at individual registers.

''You don't have to play those games trying to figure out which line to pick or whether to switch lines if the person in front of you has a problem," said TJX spokeswoman Sherry Lang. ''We've all been there. This is a fair system, so you're not waiting in line longer than anyone else."

Government measures certainly won't capture the deflationary effect of the time we save.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2005 8:22 AM

If Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable had done a movie about standing in line, you be crowing about how great standing in line is. You'd be pressing for draconian government regulations to force people to stand in line and saying what a great socializing element it is. "Why, when I was student at Aquafresh University [or wherever] we stood in line for hours and we were *happy!*"

Posted by: Bryan at December 27, 2005 8:53 AM

"To better train new workers hired for the holiday season, Wal-Mart began putting cash registers in the employees' back room so that they can practice."

Here comes another law suit against Walmart.

Posted by: Genecis at December 27, 2005 10:36 AM

Bryan: lol.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 27, 2005 11:35 AM

Wal-Mart's been using the hand-held scanners during the holiday season at their Sam's Club stores for several years ago. They're actually a lot more efficent than the automated check-outs, whic inevitably become befuddled by some item's bar code, weight, or age restriction on sale that require a supervisor to come over and key in the proper setting.

Posted by: John at December 27, 2005 12:02 PM

As part of a college stats project I ran a series of Poisson distribution calculation in order to compare the average per-person wait time between a multi-queue system (M/M/n) and single-queue system (M/M/1). A multi-queue system is like Wal-Mart. A single-queue system is like a bank or an airline check-in.

The average wait time of the single-queue beat the multi-queue every time, often by a lot.

If the guy in front of you needs a price check at Wal-Mart, you are basically stuck. If the guy in front of you is counting pennies at the bank teller, you just go to another window.

Posted by: Gideon at December 27, 2005 1:10 PM

Funny thing is after people have become convinced that prices are rock bottom at Sams and other alleged deep discounters, they keep driving long distances to those stores and enduring the crowds and long lines even though prices may not be much different than other more convenient stores which offer more amenities.

Posted by: erp at December 27, 2005 1:11 PM

"Line-rushing" technology expanding our lives by allowing us more freedom to do what we want with our time--who would have thought it!

The next thing we shall hear is that machines will allow us to transport ourselves to places of our choosing, at times of our choosing, perhaps even communicating with one another as we move.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 27, 2005 2:43 PM

Waiting in line is so Socialist.. Let's face it, it's one of the two things the Soviet Union will be remembered for in 2200.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at December 27, 2005 3:11 PM

Queuing is European.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 27, 2005 3:47 PM

Time is money, oj.

Posted by: joe shropshire at December 27, 2005 7:19 PM