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Queues Clues: How To Find The Fastest Checkout Line

By: Mary H.J. Farrell | December 9, 2011

The lines stretching to the checkout counters are a chaotic mess and, of course, the one you're standing in is moving the slowest. Or is it? In an effort to move customers along faster, retailers and researchers have applied a little queuing theory to this seemingly random process and it turns out there is a better way.

According to "The Science of Lines" graphic in the Wall Street Journal, a shopper can determine the expected wait time by using this formula developed by John D.C. Little: The average wait time equals the average number of people in line divided by their arrival rate. For example, if there are six people in line and two shoppers are joining each minute than the average wait time will be three minutes. At this time of year, three minutes in line would be a gift.

At Consumer Reports, we didn't do the math, we did something better—we asked more than 16,000 subscribers about their recent appliance purchases and 22,000 about buying electronics. Consumers who made a recent large appliance purchase rated Abt Electronics and local independent stores excellent for checkout ease. Lowe's and P.C. Richard rated very good but all the other retailers were only good. For small appliance purchases,, QVC and independent stores were considered excellent but Walmart scored poorly.

The electronics buyers we asked, gave top marks to four online stores and very good to two more. The walk-in retailers did not fare quite as well. Only independent retailers and P.C. Richard scored very good and Fry's Electronics and Walmart were considered fair.

No matter where you shop, try to survey the lines before joining one. If a line is short, there may be a reason such as a "line stopper" with a problem. Researchers have found that one single-file line leading to three registers moves three times faster than three separate lines, reports the Wall Street Journal. The reason is if one register gets blocked by a customer with a problem the other two lines keep moving. Retailers have been experimenting with ways to get shoppers to the cash registers faster but, turns out, many shoppers prefer to choose their own lines and suffer the consequences. Hmmm. Sounds like it's better to shop online than stand in line.

Copyright © 2005-2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.