Queue Management at Whole Foods

The New York Times has an article about Whole Foods grocery experimenting with a new arrangement for checkout at their Manhattan location. A Long Line for a Shorter Wait at the Supermarket details a move toward a single long line that feeds into individual checkout lines as they open, a little like a river delta. It leads to a shorter overall wait despite the counterintuitive appearance of the line.

Banks of course have used this sort of queuing for years. Harvard Business Review ran an article in 2003 called R&D Comes to Services that detailed Bank of America’s experiments managing perceived waiting time versus actual waiting time in their teller lines in Atlanta.

Fry’s Electronics is another company that uses this type of checkout. It’s unexpectedly annoying. I think it’s the presence of the line manager who directs you to the correct checkout line. Their line of registers is incredibly long but it still seems a little insulting that I can’t be trusted to discern on my own which is the next available register.

In a bank there’s a subtle interaction between you and the teller. It’s normally pretty clear which teller is wrapping up their transaction and, if you watch, all it takes is a shared nod for you to step forward to their window. Having that interaction mediated by a third party is the part that seems intrusive. Whole Food’s color-coded digital screen for communicating that information seems like it might solve the problem. Somehow a screen-based touchpoint seems less pushy.

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