Why it’s not worth waiting on the express line at the grocery store

Shopping buying checkout target

Choosing the correct line at the grocery store can often be a decision that either makes or breaks your day. Make the wrong decision and you can be stuck behind
that person. We’ve all been there.

Thankfully, the New York Times has laid out some great tips about how to choose the fastest checkout line. And one nugget has shattered everything we thought we knew was true. 

Turns out, according to the Times, that getting on the express checkout line at the store isn’t always the best idea. That’s because there’s a fixed amount of time a shopper spends at the checkout exchanging common courtesies, choosing what bags they want, paying, gathering their purchases, etc. 

The Times spoke to Dan Meyer, a former maths teacher and chief academic officer at the startup Desmos, who says this amount of time — 41 seconds on average — could slow down the express line, if there are more people waiting to pay for fewer items. The Times writes:

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.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? 

But the unfortunate truth is, individual checkout lines are slowing us all down, express line or not. According to Bill Hammack, an engineer who has a YouTube channel that explains how everyday things function, when a grocery lane has a number of different lanes to choose from, probability is working against you. In other words, you’re most likely to choose a line that’s not the fastest one. 

Hammack says the solution is to get rid of checkout lanes and have one central queue that gets you to multiple registers. Many Trader Joe’s stores in New York City work this way:

The New York Times’ story has a lot more great tips about choosing the right line. Check them all out here. They might not solve all of your life’s problems, but at least they will give you something to think about next time you’re waiting in line. 

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