Way back in the early days of this blog, Gady had a post about queuing innovations at Hannaford Supermarkets, a regional chain of markets serving the Northeast. One of things Gady mentioned was that they were experimenting with having a single line for those waiting to checkout. Having now visited Hannaford’s relatively new store in West Lebanon, NH, I can show you what that looks like:
As Gad’s original post notes, a single checkout line is not a completely new idea for supermarkets. Indeed, Wholefoods’ Columbus Circle store has gotten all sorts of press for its single queue system. I would argue that this is a little bit different. At Wholefoods, a single queue is as much about packing many, many registers into a tight space as it is about efficiently moving customers through. That’s not really true in West Lebanon; this is pretty much your standard, large, suburban American grocery store. In West Leb, a single queue is — as the signs suggest — all about reducing customer waiting times.
While pooling queues is a standard recommendation in capacity management, here it requires some additional considerations. One is educating customers. My mom (mom and dad were the only reason I was in West Leb) reports that this store has been opened less than a year and they still having lots of signs up explaining how the system works.
Second, there is a question of how to direct customers to registers. Part of the efficiency of grocery checkout rests on one customer emptying out their basket while another customer is in service. Here there would be a serious temptation for a customer to wait until a cashier was totally idle before heading to their till (as one would do at the post office or bank). Hannaford gets around this by having a worker at the customer service desk simultaneously work a cash register and direct customers. She was asking customer to head to register three in between scanning items.
That all worked very effectively and the wait was short but it struck me as relatively fragile. I suspect that the customer service worker gets the job of quarterbacking the queue because she is positioned best to see the state of all the registers. However, I am not sure what happens when she gets a relatively complicated transaction. That is, her added work is easy when she is just ringing up a customer. It’s going to be a little harder when she needs process a return or resolve a pricing error.
Finally, I should acknowledge a bit of misinformation in the above. Calling West Lebanon suburban suggests there is something urban nearby. That is an outright lie.