How To Choose The Fastest Line At The Grocery Store

You may think it an inexact science. “It’s just random chance,” you think, and “I’ll always get the slow one, no matter what. Or worse, the trainee!” Nope, just like many things in life, there is a method to the madness of waiting in line at the grocery store.

The New York Times recently shared some pointers on how to get in and out quickly (although some of this is mental, as research has shown that shoppers overestimated their line wait time by 36 percent!).

1. Look for a full cart

This may seem like the one thing you don’t want to do, but think of it this way: Every person does the same thing in line. They say hi, they fork over the payment, be it cash or credit card (although getting behind a personal check-writer is a killer), and then they leave. The Times article says that takes about 41 seconds per person, and each item takes three seconds to get beeped. “That means getting in line with numerous people who have fewer things can be a poor choice. Think of it this way: One person with 100 items to be rung up will take an average of almost six minutes to process. If you get in a line with four people who each have 20 items, it will take an average of nearly seven minutes.”

Aha. The light bulb is going off. Let’s continue!

supermarket checkout photo
Photo by markhillary

2. Go left, young man (or woman)

Robert Samuel is the founder of Same Ole Line Dudes, a New York-based service that will stand in line for you (yes, in the year 2016 there is such a thing) told the Times that more people are right-handed and tend to veer to the right. As such, it may be wise to try lanes to the left instead.

3. Look for the female cashier

Mr. Samuel admits he may be going sexist on us here, but he says that “In my experience [women] seem to be the most expedient at register transactions and processing.” A. J. Marsden is an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, and suggests looking to see if the checker is providing a running commentary on each item. That’s a line to avoid, unless everyone has already avoided it. In that case, just put up with the chattiness, and blast through the lane.

4. Know your fellow line-mates (and what they’re buying)

Marsden says older shoppers may not be as familiar with how debit card swiping/pin entry technology works, so you may want to look for lines with younger folks in them. And then… notice what people are buying. Six different bottles of soda will take more time to ring up than six of the same brand, for example.

supermarket checkout photo
Photo by dlisbona

5. One line: several checkers

One line feeding into several cashiers is what’s known as a “serpentine line.”

“Getting into a single line also provides a sense of psychological relief because it eliminates the choice of where to go and second-guessing about the best line to choose,” Julie Niederhoff, assistant professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, said in the Times article. Douglas E. Norton is a professor of mathematics and statistics at Villanova University, and says that studies have shown that three tellers with their own lines take three times as long as a single line leading to the cashier promised land line. Why don’t more stores use this method? “Essentially, nobody wants a huge line of folks with full grocery carts winding (like a serpent) around their store.”

6. Avoid lines with obstructions

Stay away from these lines, according to a recent study. If the cashier can’t see your entire line due to something being in the way—a shelf or the line going around the corner—they won’t have any visual feedback as to how long the line really is.

7. Other tricks of the trade

Place your items with the barcodes facing the checker, remove hangers from clothing and otherwise expose tags quick scanning. If you’re in a real hurry, have a friend take some of your stuff through another lane!

supermarket checkout photo
Photo by Lee Jordan