There is nothing I enjoy discussing more than queues and waiting. Seriously. (This weekend’s Yankees sweep of the Red Sox comes as a close second). In a recent article, the Times Union (“Move up to the head of the line”, Aug 1st. Hat tip to Jonathan Caston Perez for sending it) discusses queue-management innovations in the Ballston Spa store of the Hannaford Bros. grocery chain.
The first change they introduced, is to make all customers line-up in a single line:
“Similar to the single-line systems used at post offices, book stores and other retailers, Hannaford’s Queue checkout requires shoppers to line up in front of a “service leader” who directs each customer to the next available cash register. “
This idea is not new and is thoroughly discussed in any core operations management course. Even the idea of having “service leaders” has been used in the past, for example at the Whole Foods store in Columbus Circle (“A Long Line for a Shorter Wait at the Supermarket”, NY Times, June 2007).
The Hannaford Bros. grocery chain is pushing this idea one step further:
“One key to the Queue System’s speed are small, hand-held cash register units called “queue busters” located in each checkout lane. If the cashier in a lane is checking out one customer, a second cashier, using a queue buster, can begin ringing up the purchases of the next customer in line. Once the first customer pays and proceeds out of the lane, the second customer’s order is electronically passed along to the first cashier who can finish the order and accept payment. Another reason for increased speed at checkout, Girard said, is the associates are not tethered to a specific position. Someone who is acting as a bagger in one lane, may pick up a queue buster and help speed customers through a second lane if needed. And the service leader, who knows which cashiers are quick and who’s in training, can direct the flow of traffic with those considerations in mind.”
If all of these tools are executed correctly, you get a pretty efficient system that utilizes flexibility to reduce waiting times and improve the overall experience. I also like the message they write on the grocery dividers: “don’t get too comfortable (you won’t be here for long)”. Call centers have been using skills-based-routing, flexible resources and “Interactive Voice Response” to reduce the load on human agents already for several years, but making all of these ideas work in a retail brick-and-mortar setting is pretty nice.