Archive for the ‘Waiting’ Category

I must confess that I have never really been enthralled by Trader Joe’s. I have never lived close by one so it was a convenient option for shopping nor have I ever been desperately loyal to their private label products. But there certainly are people who love Trader Joe’s and their stores can be quite busy. As consequence, the check out lines at some locations can be a special sort of experience. McSweeny’s offers a parody “Trader Joe’s Waiting in Line App” asking user to rate their overall shopping experience on the following scale:

  • 4 stars: Took a while, but got what I needed.
  • 3 stars: Eerily friendly cashier weirded me out; there was hardly any bagged lettuce left.
  • 2 stars: Constant gridlock. Teeth gritted the whole time.
  • 1 star: Anarchy. Like the ending of Lord of the Flies.

What does the ending of Lord of the Flies look like? Check out BuzzFeed’s “The Nightmare Of Shopping At Trader Joe’s In Manhattan.” It’s one thing to have to mark where the line starts; it’s another to need a sign marking the middle of the line so clueless (or super-aggressive) shoppers don’t cut the queue.

What then is a shopper to do? According to a recent Slate piece, the answer is to shop while in line (The Six Rules of Line-Shopping at Trader Joe’s, Aug 24).

Not long ago I was waiting in line at the smaller-than-average and perpetually mobbed Trader Joe’s near Union Square in Manhattan when I noticed the shopper in front of me had come up with a clever, possibly devious solution to the crowd problem. Upon entering the store, she claimed a shopping cart and staked out a spot in the checkout line (which snaked around almost the entire perimeter of the store). She proceeded to do all her shopping from her place in line: picking up produce as the line crept through the produce aisle, frozen goods as it passed by the freezer case, cereal when it neared the cereal section.


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A quick update on Wednesday’s post on running queues last-in, first-out. First, the Washington Post had a story on this as well (Researchers have discovered a better way to wait in line, and you’re going to hate it, Sep 9) and to their credit they get the gist of the model right; the fact that customers value getting served early is key to their results.

Second, I was asked to speak about this article on an NPR station out in California (AirTalk, KPCC, Sep 10). You can hear it here.

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Suppose you are waiting in line for something. How would you expect the service provider to take people out of the line?

Unless you are at some place like an emergency room where different customers have clearly different needs and different levels of urgency, you might expect that customers are served in the order of their arrival — that is, a first-in, first-out discipline is used. That’s a natural and common assumption (at least in the US). It is also makes headlines like “Have we been queuing all wrong? Lines move faster if the person at the back is served first, study finds” (Daily Mail, Aug 14) or “Danish researchers have an enraging proposal to speed up queues: Serve the last person first” (Quartz, Sep 7) attention grabbing . Here is the crux of the Daily Mail article:

A group of Danish researchers have discovered a rather unexpected solution to the long lines of people that can appear ahead of new iPhone launches or to get into sporting events.

They say serving the person at the back of the queue first can actually make lines move faster – something which may horrify British and Americans who adhere to the strict etiquette of waiting your turn.

Instead it suggests people like the Italians, who often frustrate other tourists with their lack of regard for the order of a queue, may have been on to something after all.

The findings could put an end to traditions which have become almost British institutions such as queuing to get tickets for Wimbledon or the Proms.

So what is going on here? Is serving customer last-in, first-out really the answer to queuing woes? (more…)

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The Supreme Court hears a major civil rights case today on same-sex marriage. As you might surmise, there are a lot of folks with a very personal stake in its outcome. Many of those people might want to actually witness history and be present when the case is argued before the court. As Slate tells it, that isn’t so easy (Not All Must Rise, Apr 27).

For many Americans, the arguments in the marriage equality cases will be the most important inflection of the court into the very core of their homes, their lives, and the status of their families. Many of those Americans started lining up Friday, four days before arguments that will take place on Tuesday morning, for a chance to witness one of the most important moments in Supreme Court history.

Many other Americans simply paid a line-standing service $50 an hour to secure a place for them.

Starting Friday, if you or your law firm had $6,000 to shell out, a paid proxy—a company such as LineStanding.com or Washington Express—would arrange to have someone hold your place in line. The fact that some of these line-standers appear to be either very poor or homeless and may have to stand in rain, snow, sleet, or hail so that you don’t have to irks at least some people who feel that thousands of dollars shouldn’t be the fee to bear witness to “Equal Justice Under the Law”—the words etched over the door to the Supreme Court building—in action.

The article goes on to note that because the court hearing room is small and various seats are reserved for guests of the justices, media types and so on only 70 or seats are available for the general public. Yesterday morning, Slate reports that 67 people were already in line and that many weren’t overly forthcoming when asked for whom they were waiting.


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Is the express lane in the grocery store always the fastest lane?

That’s a great question and its the subject of a “Dear Mona” column over on FiveThirtyEight (Dear Mona, Which Is The Fastest Check-Out Lane At The Grocery Store?, Oct 16). Mona attacks this question by heading into the queuing theory weeds.

I couldn’t find much research on express lanes specifically, but one paper from Amsterdam found the reduction in wait times for express-lane customers didn’t offset the overall increase in wait times for everyone. Maybe life would be easier if the supermarket didn’t have an express lane — or, better yet, if it got rid of multiple lines altogether and had all customers join a single infinitely sprawling line where there were no winners and losers. That might sound nightmarish, but the math actually suggests it would be anything but.

That math comes from queuing theory, a subject of study that’s been around ever since Danish mathematician Agner Krarup Erlang discovered a method for managing telephone traffic in 1909. To answer your question, I’ve had to take a crash course in (more modern) queuing theory, including examining formulae that calculate how average wait times at the grocery store vary depending on the type of line you join.

I should state upfront Mona on the whole acquits herself quite well on this. But there are a couple of points worth mentioning. First, there in fact supermarkets that run with a single queue, like this Hannaford’s in West Lebanon, NH.


As you can see, that singe serpentine queue ends up chewing up a lot of space at the front of the store. That’s a lot of real estate to give up when you only have two people in line. As we have written about before, that is only one of the complications of having a single queue in a grocery setting.

But let’s suppose for the moment that we can get a single queue to work. Is that in fact the best way to run a supermarket’s checkout? (more…)

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When was the last time you called a business number, got put on hold and heard dead silence? In all likelihood it was some time ago. So why play music when customers are forced to wait? It’s not like anyone really enjoys hearing pabulum played at the highest fidelity permitted your phone’s speaker so there is a real question here for why firms should go through the effort. Slate has an article that tries to get at this question (Your Call Is Important to Us, Sep 8). If you prefer to listen instead of read, here is an NPR interview with the article’s author.

The first thing to recognize is that playing something for callers placed on hold aimed to solve a practical problem: If all you here is nothing, how do you know that the call is still connected?

But in the spring of 1962, an application appeared in the U.S. Patent Office, humbly titled “Telephone Hold Program System.” “In the course of receiving telephone calls,” it began, a bit grandly, before settling into the problem at hand: What to do about that dead silence the caller endured while calls were transferred, their respective parties chased down? Operators were supposed to check in again on callers who had been waiting; but what if they got busy? “In any event,” the application went on, “listening to a completely unresponsive instrument is tedious and calls often are abandoned altogether or remade which leads to annoyance and a waste of time and money.”

So the thought was that using music could improve customer service and operation efficiency. People would be more willing to hang on the line and thus would not need to call back later. Does that actually work? (more…)

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Wal-Mart has had a tough go over the last few years. Sure, they are still a huge force in retailing but they have run into a variety of operational problems largely related to in-store execution. (See. for example, this post.) Now the Wall Street Journal reports that Wal-Mart is gearing up for the holidays by trying to address some customer service pain points (Returning to Wal-Mart: Human Cashiers, Aug 15).

In an attempt to lure more customers this holiday season, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is promising to staff each of its cash register from the day after Thanksgiving through the days just before Christmas during peak shopping times.

The move, called the “checkout promise,” is aimed at addressing one of the retailer’s biggest customer complaints: long waits in checkout lines, which can cause even more frustration when positions aren’t fully staffed. The pledge will cover hours typically on weekend afternoons but which can vary by store.

“We feel good about price and having the top gifts of the season, so the next priority is about getting customers in and out of the stores quickly,” Duncan Mac Naughton, Wal-Mart’s chief merchandising officer, said in an interview. “Taking the possibility of waiting in long lines off the table will attract more people into stores.” …

On Thursday the retail giant said it allocated more hours to the front end of the store, to overnight stocking, and to deli and bakery to improve customer service during the most recent quarter.

Here are two questions that are worth thinking about. (more…)

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