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Selling Us

The Quirks of Queuing Up

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page F01

I went to the Rite Aid across from my office the other day and found a slightly awkward situation: an impromptu bank line. A group of customers, rather than lining up behind individual cash registers, had formed one single line that fed all the cash registers, as at a bank or airport ticket counter.

It made me wonder about line management in stores and how much retailers actually think about the way their lines work. Could they possibly think about it as much as shoppers do?

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Not usually. Caring about customer queues, it turns out, tends to go along with a general emphasis on customer service throughout a store. It's not likely that a perfect, well-run checkout solution will be found at a place that otherwise doesn't price its merchandise adequately or have enough help on the sales floor.

But there is a science, of sorts, built around retail lines and what works in different types of settings, and some retailers do plenty of research to try to get it right. Still, watching the naturally occurring single-file line pop up where it's not intended certainly suggests that customers and retailers may never really get in sync when it comes to this critical moment in a shopping transaction.

"The best way to help make those kinds of decisions is to do it from a fact-based, scientific retailing model and balance it with the art of retailing," said Janet Hoffman, a partner in the retail practice at the consulting firm Accenture. In other words, retailers can't just understand how lines work, they have to understand how their customers think.

And that just doesn't happen enough at most retailers.

The pop-up single line, however, does offer some interesting insight into shopper behavior. I've seen these lines form many times, often at drugstores but also at department stores and specialty chains. The dynamic is almost always the same.

It works like this: Two or three adjacent registers are open, and each has one customer being waited on. When another customer arrives to check out, rather than just picking a line to stand in, he'll just hang back to see which line opens first. Then, another customer with merchandise will ask that shopper, "Are you in line?" and queue up behind him. After that, other customers follow suit, and the line grows.

This self-imposed order can last for a while, but it's fragile, and the potential for frustration is high. When a harried customer rushes up to the checkout without noticing (deliberately or not) the long line going down the candy aisle, it leaves those in the single line shifting awkwardly, wondering what to say. Sometimes the single-file line dissolves immediately as shoppers pile up behind individual registers, jockeying for the quickest potential checkout.

This scenario suggests that shoppers inherently gravitate to what is considered, by many people, to be the fairest line system, a single queue to multiple cash registers. In fact, though, it's not about that -- it's about customers looking for the quickest route out of the store. The first person who hung back, and inadvertently started the line, didn't do it to be equitable but to preserve the option of going to whichever register opened first. It was all about speed.

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