Large retail stores and fast-food restaurants have a simple choice when designing their checkout customer experience:

  • Multiple registers, multiple lines, one line per register
  • Multiple registers, single line

This problem is known in the retail industry as “queue management”. The New York Times today features an article comparing the checkout experiences of several New York City supermarkets, and concludes that Whole Foods’s single-line approach is the most efficient. The article suggests that the multiple-line approach is common in the suburbs, but that a different approach is needed for Whole Foods’s New York stores… so a “single-line, bank-style system was quickly chosen for its statistical efficiency.”

Um, duh. Don’t we all know this yet? Isn’t this common knowledge. Isn’t it just common sense? Well, apparently a lot of retailers haven’t yet gotten it.

But customers know it.

Lately I’ve noticed that when presented with multiple registers, customers (at least in New York City) will naturally form into a single line when given half a chance, even when store policy doesn’t ask for a single line. Maybe it’s because it just seems rude to slide up to an open register when somebody else is already waiting in line behind another customer at another register. It’s taking advantage of another person’s bad luck or complacency.

In fact, the multiple-line system almost deliberately encourages people to treat each other as rivals, asking them to think hard before choosing a line, to make tactical decisions to switch lines to maximize their own efficiency, even to send spouses and children to “hold places” in multiple lines to hedge their bets… all of this adds up to a kind of laissez-faire capitalist, survival-of-the-fittest model of the customer experience. In short, these stores are making the customers do their queue management for them.


This system is not only statistically inefficient, but (more importantly) it is a bad customer experience on an emotional level. It implicitly treats customers as animals, like pigs at a trough fighting for food. While some customers may complete their checkout happily, others will feel screwed because they chose the wrong line, or because they didn’t quickly switch to a more efficient line at the right time. It alienates customers from each other, too, by forcing them to focus on tactics and not on normal social niceties, which can’t be good for the store’s sense of community.

In short, the multiple-line system lacks grace. Customers want to be polite and social, not rude and anti-social. We feel better about our experiences when they don’t bring out the worst in us. We want experiences that enable us to behave graciously.

I can’t believe this is still subject to debate, but many retailers are sticking to their guns. In the local CVS and McDonald’s stores near my office, whenever the customers naturally and politely queue up into a single line the staff has to step in and practically yell at them to break up and form separate lines.

Why do they do this? Is it because, as the Times article suggests, customers are scared by long lines and, presumably, can be fooled into thinking that 10 lines with 5 people in each is a far shorter wait than 1 line with 50 people in it? Is it because of space/design constraints? Is it in order to better discipline and monitor unskilled cashiers? Is it because in many communities customers don’t yet understand the mechanics of the single-line approach? Or is it just plain old corporate inertia and stupidity?


8 responses to “Grace, not just Efficiency, in Queue Management”

  1. It implicitly treats customers as animals, like pigs at a trough fighting for food. While some customers may complete their checkout happily, others will feel screwed because they chose the wrong line, or because they didn’t quickly switch to a more efficient line at the right time.

    Ah, but isn’t that the perfect allegory for capitalism? I wonder if the competitive basis for our economy isn’t at the heart of the multi-line system’s persistence.

    The egalitarian aims of the single line system more closely resemble socialism, and I suspect many of its supporters (Whole Foods’ demographic, for example) presume themselves to transcend the crass consumerist attitudes embodied by the companies that perpetuate the multi-line approach.

  2. Great thoughts, Rob. Extending it further: Perhaps the increased use of the single-line method in urban areas reflects the left-of-center, socialist-sympathetic, we’re-all-in-this-together politics of city dwellers. And the use of the multi-line technique more closely matches the right-of-center, capitalist-sympathetic, every-shopper-for-him/herself politics of suburban America.

    I hate to polarize our purple nation into reds and blues again, but there is something to this. Perhaps the CVS and McDonald’s insist on multi-line approaches simply because it’s the policy customers prefer nationally in their primarily-suburban locations, and they lack the ability to customize their policies to suit local behavioral preferences.

    The ironic thing about all this is that the single-line technique is the more polite way of doing things, which really exemplifies how wrong, IMHO, the stereotype is that city people, and New Yorkers in particular, are more rude than their suburban counterparts.

  3. In the section of New York I live in, Manhattan’s Chinatown, a functioning single-line system is a rare sighting. I’ve seen it at the Duane Reade across from my building, but it only seems to work when there are few cashiers working the registers (in adjacent registers for greater chance of success) or when a line grows to be abnormally long with several consecutive buyers familiar with and tolerant of the single-line system.

    Adjacent registers are more likely to sustain a single line (a poor man’s version of the “queue funnel” you see at Whole Foods perhaps), and a really long line translates into more resistance when a line-skipper tries to ignore it. Of course, the long lines become disruptive if the store isn’t set up to accommodate them, prompting clerks to break them up – as pointed out.

    The Chinese bakeries and other take-out food vendors that neighbor the Duane Reade I refer to are strictly survival-of-the-fittest affairs when it comes to ordering and paying. The patrons at such places are typically older or less assimilated immigrants (recent or not), with significant cultural baggage to consider: if you don’t fight for your chance to get your food, you may not get any. Up on Canal Street, where there’s greater tourist traffic, it becomes more of a mix of lines/no lines – depending on traffic and some assessment on what people are buying (e.g. A client may sneak a quick order for coffee and pay for it by leaving exact change on the counter, while another client ordering multiple items is in the middle of their order). I think that, like NYC’s well-reasoned tolerance for jay-walking, is also grace.

  4. I can absolutely be fooled into thinking 10 lines of 5 is faster than one line of fifty. I can visually count to 5, 50 is just ‘lots’. Faced between two fast-food place side-by-side, I would absolutely go for the short-looking lines 😉

  5. @Donna: It is pretty astonishing to go to the end of a 50-person well-managed single line and find yourself not standing still and waiting byt practically marching forward so quickly that it’s like walking.

  6. I’ve seen this practice first at Fry’s Electronics and increasingly at Best Buy: one queue marked off by queue pylons and tape barriers, multiple registers. The system does seem to move faster, but, also, I suspect, there is added incentive for the business to do so by lining the queue with shelves of cheapish but high profit margin impulse-buy goods.

  7. […] Here is another one discussing the merits (which type of queuing system–one long line with multiple registers, many lines for many registers) is more polite, which has more grace. It is by Chris Fahey of Behavior Design on his blog graphpaper. […]

  8. I experienced the single-line system for the first time in a retail setting at Best Buy this past Christmas season…at first the line was daunting, but as noted above it marched right along and at the end of the experience was the realization if its amazing efficiency.

    Ideations of egalitarianism or capitalism or what have you didn’t enter into it for me, any more than they ever have at the airport check-in counter…if anything the collective glare at the person at the head of the queue, willing them to see and immediately utilize the next free register, was more wolf-pack than love-in. When my turn came it was a sprinter-waiting-for-the-gun rush to get it right and not hold up the queue…”now there goes an attentive fellow” I could hear in the back of my head from the approving eyes behind….

    ….I’d say that’s the only real vulnerability of the one-line system, both vis-a-vis efficiency and customer experience…the dread of watching the one distracted patron, chatting away on a cellphone or tending to a small child, knowing they were going to be the ones to hear the ever-more-persistent “next in line please… please…..NEXT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” from the cashier and fellow customers alike.

    I don’t remember if BB did it or not, but a system of a light and maybe a ‘bong’ or ‘ding’ at the newly-available register might help things along, and even give a little Pavlovian / game-show rush to the patron who jumps right in to keep things moving along.

    As far as adoption of it, I think folks will experience it and then after a while they’ll seek it out….