Why Express Checkout Lines Are Often A Waste Of Time

Express checkout lines were designed to make your supermarket shopping trip a little faster by speeding things up when you have just a handful of items. Nevertheless, you’ll sometimes spend more time in an express line than a standard one. Here’s why.

Photo by Tyler Olson (Shutterstock)

The Problem With Express Checkout

Express checkout fails because of us. It’s designed to funnel more humans through the checkout process at a rapid pace, but adding more people increases the likelihood of a “line stopper”. The term “line stoppers” describes people who have issues at checkout. Perhaps their credit card gets declined, an item doesn’t scan properly, they discover they’re about to buy a package of broken eggs, or they fumble for ages looking for that all-important five-cent piece. All of these little things add up. Because express exist to service more people, you increase your likelihood of encountering a line stopper ahead of you.

But wait, there’s more! The cashier in an express line is also more likely to experience problems because of the number of people he or she services. The receipt printer is more likely to run out of paper when more people are going through the line.

Each of these issues can add to your queue time, negating the benefits of an express checkout line — and that’s before you remember that some people have more than the maximum number of items allowed anyway.

How To Pick A Better Line

There’s no one-size-fits-all rule to getting through the supermarket quickly. You need to assess each situation on a case-by-case basis. When the number of people in every line is equal, or the express checkout lane is shorter, you’re save time by choosing it. But if the express line has a dozen or more people, queuing behind someone with a full trolley might prove faster in the long run. Inner-city supermarkets often have just a single queue which is funnelled to multiple cashiers, which entirely eliminates the element of choice.

The widespread introduction of self-service checkouts adds another element to the equation. There are strategies you can use to speed up self-service checkouts, but they have the same fundamental source of delay: unskilled (and sometimes clueless) operators. There are regularly times in my local supermarket where there’s a queue for the self-service line but no-one using the adjacent express lines. On these occasions, I’m grateful for my fellow shoppers’ dedication to the self-service cause. On other occasions, it’s still faster to self-serve.

Ultimately, it’s just a line. Bring something to do while you wait and the line won’t matter. Got your own speed tricks for faster shopping? Share them in the comments.

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