Whenever I go food shopping, there is one decision that frustrates me more than any other: which is the fastest or most efficient checkout line? No matter how carefully I evaluate the different lines, I always make the wrong decision and end up in the slowest one. While I’m waiting there’s always someone ahead of me who has scanned something that’s not in the database. No one knows what the correct price is, and the cashier isn’t going to take the customer’s word for it, so she calls someone over, hands him the item, and off he goes to find out what it costs. Meanwhile, everyone else in the line has to wait.
While this is happening, I’m usually surveying the other checkout lines and thinking to myself “If I had chosen checkout line #2, I would have been right behind that guy right now – the one who has just finished bagging his groceries and is now leaving the store”.
I also spent a lot of time watching the cashiers at work, and thinking to myself “I don’t think that I could be a cashier – this is a job that I am suited for”. Of course, the job much easier than it used to be – in the days before scanners, the cashiers had to enter the prices into the register; now all they have to do is swipe everything across the scanner. Except for the stuff in clear plastic bags – that’s when the magic happens. Most cashiers simply look at the bag, and know exactly what code to enter. I’ve looked at those bags too, and half the time I can’t even identify the type of vegetable inside them!
Another reason why I would make a lousy cashier is that I wouldn’t be able to resist making comments and lifestyle judgments, based on the items on the conveyor belt. For example, if an elderly or middle-aged man was buying a bottle of cranberry juice, I would scan the bottle, hold it up, look at it briefly, turn to the customer and say (quite helpfully and earnestly) “Cranberry juice! I was just reading an article in a health magazine, and do you know what they said about this? Cranberry juice – a friend to urinary tract health. I see you’ve bought the large bottle, sir. Do you really like cranberry juice that much, or is there perhaps some other… medical reason for your purchase. Tell me, sir – does it hurt when you pee? Be honest, you can tell… What do you mean it’s none of my business? Listen – those other cashiers would just scan this item silently, but not I. That’s because I care. I care about your prostate. Because that’s just the kind of value-added cashier I am.”
Reason #3: I’m the type of person who gets bored very easily, and I need to do things that keep my mind sharp. Often, I’ll start making up games with the customers to keep myself amused. “OK sir, your total comes to $11.84″. From twenty, your change should be… $8.16. Does that sound right to you? What do you think? Does that sound right? You’re hesitating… don’t you know? OK, I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you $8.16 right now, or you could choose option #2, and accept whatever amount the cash registers calculates as your change. Which choice will offer you the best deal? Or will the numbers be the same? You have five seconds to make your decision.”
Finally, I wouldn’t last long as a cashier because I don’t suffer fools gladly. One of my countless supermarket pet peeves is the innumerate shopper. These are the people who invariably come up short at the cash register, and then rather than admit their ineptitude, spend 30 seconds spewing face-saving nonsense such as “I must have left my wallet in my other purse”, “I know it’s here somewhere, just give me a minute”. Finally, when the cashier helpfully offers to remove one or more items from the total, the innumerate (and now indecisive) shopper spend another 30 seconds trying to decide which item that should be. My response, if I were a cashier: “Sir/madam stop wasting everyone’s time by trying to save face. We all know that you don’t have enough money to pay for all of your items, and that’s because you can’t do mental arithmetic. You are unable to keep a running total in your head, and I would wager that you likely don’t know which items are taxable. If I may say so, this is the price we as a society are paying for twenty years of sub-standard Mexican weed and a decade of insipid reality television – we now have stores filled shoppers like you, who are wandering around in a permanent mental fog.”
Clearly, I wouldn’t last long as a cashier. Now, back to the line analysis…
Checkout Line Efficiency Analysis
The basic initial strategy is obviously “choose the shortest line – the one with the fewest people in it”. As most of you already know, this strategy isn’t particularly effective, since there are too many other variables to consider. Some people have more groceries than others, so I modified my approach and discreetly looked at the number of items in everyone’s cart and then recalculate based on the total item count, rather than the number of people.
I’ll often walk past all of the checkout lanes and glance at each cashier. Is she young or middle-aged? The young ones generally work faster since they are vibrant, full of energy and eager to make a good impression as they enter the workforce. The middle-aged cashier – especially one whose face tells you that life has beaten her down – is more likely to be on auto-pilot, and therefore will be working at a sloth-like pace as she counts down the hours and minutes until the end of her shift.
An important consideration is what I call “the old lady factor”. A senior in the checkout line will usually gum the entire works (and this applies equally to older men). For example, a cashier might say, “OK madam, your bill is $20.94” and the old lady will say, “Here’s $20, and I think I have 94 cents. Now, where did I put my change purse. Oh, I don’t have my glasses. I can’t tell if this is a quarter or a nickel. Now I’ve lost track… how much have I given you so far?”.
Another variable is the age of the cashier. The older the cashier, the more likely she is to make small talk with the customers. This slows down the scanning and increases the wait time. Also, the smaller the town, the more likely it is that this will happen, and the longer this time-wasting banter will last.
If there’s time, I’ll check for multitasking abilities. When a cashier is making small-talk with the customers, does she stop scanning? It’s important to avoid cashiers who are unable to multitask.
There is also the plague the efficiency expert. This shopper will place all of their groceries on the conveyor belt, and then leave the line for that one item they forgot. Naturally, they don’t return as quickly as they thought, and everyone else has to wait. I don’t know if they’re simply absent-minded, or if they believe they’re being clever and efficient for thinking of this shopping strategy, but let me say this: I hate these people with the burning fire of a thousand suns! Unfortunately, you can’t identify these inconsiderate, inward-looking blackguards until you’re already in line with them, and by then it’s too late.
A little reconnaissance work (while not related to line efficiency) is also crucial. When I leave my regular supermarket, I’ll sometimes walk past cashiers who are on a cigarette break. What do you suppose the chances are that they will wash their hands (or even use hand sanitizer) after sucking on that cancer stick and covering their hands in carcinogenic filth? Probably slim to none. Personally, I don’t want these people handling every one of my food items before I bring them home. Make a mental note of who these cashier are, and avoid them at all costs during future visits.
You also need to consider the self-regulating behaviour of the other shoppers. Everyone else is doing exactly the same thing I am – we all want to get into the shortest line, so when one line is clearly shorter than the others, shoppers will gravitate toward it. In fact, if the disparity becomes pronounced, shoppers may abandon their own line to stake out a place in it. Checkout lines lengths don’t remain unequal for very long.
Finally, after incorporating all of these variables and making allowances for the self-regulating aspect of line lengths, I have come up with my own method of choosing the best checkout line. Since you’re never going to pick the shortest or most efficient line, just do what I do – choose the checkout line with the best-looking cashier!