Why Express Checkout Lines Are Often A Waste Of Time

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.

Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


  • If you ask me… people that go through an express lane with more than 15 items like it might say on the sign.. should get a penalty of say $5 or $10.. This would discourage those people that just don’t seem to care that there’s more than themselves in the world. That would go some way to making those lines a bit more effective.

    • At my local coles they don’t have a great layout and i ended up at a express lane had 90% unloaded when we noticed the sign we were about to pack it all back up but the lady said its ok this time (the other checkouts had long queues, but she didn’t).

      I think the self checkouts should be the only express lanes but they need more attentive attendants and some way to deal with people that monopolize the attendants time, when all i need is them to swipe their card to deal with the scale not picking up the item correctly, they are teaching people the basics.

    • I find paint dries quicker than self serve these days.
      Any store manager that decides it’s a good idea to have only one regular manned register expecting everyone else to be funneled through the flakey self-serve bulls*** should be fed to sharks.

    • I’ve been to supermarkets where the only open registers are either the express lane or the self-serve. This is frequently the case at my local supermarket on less-busy days. Which means you don’t have any choice about going through self-serve with a trolley.

      • Hurray for Self-Serve! The bane of my existence!! Of course they don’t tell you that the Self-serve counter is for a minimum amount of items only. I thought it would have been blatantly obvious with how much space you get on the bagging area (which is also a scale). O how I love that bagging area. If your plastic bag shifts by a microbe of a mm in the wind it’s UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA! REMOVE BEFORE CONTINUING. The machine locks up, and even if you remove your previous item it does nothing. You have to stand around with your hand in the air like some nut-job to signal a helper who has to come and unlock the machine. This will happen to you 5 times by the way, while all the time you see customers at the normal counter race through like they we’re in a v8 super car. You could have waited in that long line.. But no.. You chose Selve-Service-Checkout, and you keep telling yourself: Never again.

        But then.. the next day, there you are again. 😉

  • My local market is the Coles near World Square. As anyone who frequents it knows, it is a small store that is regularly completely out of many items by late in the day due to the traffic it gets, and it is busy until 11pm or so due to it serving a student rather than typically family population, but it’s the closest one to me, so I make do.

    Because it’s a small almost “convenience store” sized Coles, it wasn’t designed for people doing large-scale shopping. Howevere, that is exactly what many do. The checkout options are: 2 single register queues off to the right with rolling belts as seen in typical grocery stores (presumably these are where they expect the larger orders to go), or one LONG queue that serves both numerous self-serve and a few clerk-based checkout registers. Whether you get self-serve or a cashier is luck of the draw depending on the next one free when you’re at the head of the queue.

    If two people get into the individual register queues with baskets full of 60+ items, they’re a lost cause for you and your bottle of sparkling water and bag of tomatoes. Best case is almost always heading toward the long single queue. With perhaps 20 registers available, even a long queue will only take SO long to get through.

  • self serve + pay wave… BOOM! in and out like a ninja.

    All they need is an express “Pay by Eftpos” button so it skips all the prompts asking if you want this and that and to confirm this.

    The lines at the express lane where i shop are usually pretty long and they very rarely have 2 open to cover the extra customers.

  • express lanes are usually set up with one line and multiple registers to help cancel out the problems mentioned here. With four registers you have a much higher chance of a ‘line stopper’ or ‘attendant problem’ at any given time, but 75% of the registers are still operating as normal. The chances of all four registers being affected at once is much lower. They can compensate for this by dynamically opening and closing more registers as required, normally whenever the line gets over a certain length.

    The express checkout system is damn efficient when done right. The problem isn’t with the checkouts, it’s with store managers who don’t really understand how the system is meant to work or just dont have enough staff on shift.

  • Tip for those who shop at Kmart: when it’s really busy, purchase your items at the electronics department. most people don’t know that can purchase other items there rather than just stuff at that department. They don’t really have an option but to proceed with your purchase.

    When i was working there, it was horrendously busy at the checkouts but at the sound and vision department it was quiet and relaxing.

  • People taking more than 15 items through the 15 items or less lanes are what holds the line up. I’ve seen before someone have over a trolley full of items. When he got to the front of the lane, the checkout girl wouldn’t serve him. They guy got all angry, saying it’s illegal to not serve him in that lane. He asked for the manager. He was still there arguing when I left (about 5 minutes from when he got to the front and started arguing).

  • I don’t like the idea express – 15 items or less – checkouts. Of course it is great if you only have a few items but I don’t see why there should be less waiting because you are buying less things, you are still buying goods like any other customer. At the local supermarket there is generally only two non-express registers open with lines a mile long, 2-4 express registers and self-serve registers. This always ends up with lines a mile long for the two non-express registers. This just funnels everyone onto the self-serve because even with a trolley full of items you will get through quicker than the couple of normal registers. If they got rid of the express altogether, and had more normal registers open things would function much better. I don’t see the point of having 10 registers that are just about permanently closed.

    • When it comes to the express lanes, the idea is that people who have less can be served quickly and get out quickly rather than get stuck behind people with a trolley full of groceries. More turn over, basically. Of course, in practice it doesn’t quite work that way because, as you said, supermarkets tend to only have one or two normal checkouts open which screws everyone/thing else up. Personally I think it’s a waste of space to have all those normal checkouts if they’re not being used, but I think supermarkets would rather rob customers of a few more minutes than pay extra staff.

      I don’t usually use self serve checkouts unless I’ve got one or two items. They’re too much hassle for any more than that. I certainly wouldn’t take a whole trolley through, but even a basket full is a hassle.

    • Why should someone buying 1-2 items have to wait 5 minutes for 1 person to have their trolley full of groceries scanned? It takes 5 seconds to serve someone with 1-2 items. Not really fair to expect them to wait the 5 minutes is it? Imagine how long the lines will be without express. Massively long, as everyone buying 1-2 items will be behind the people that take 5 minutes to serve. The express line now has 10-20 people waiting.

  • Simple answer: Be aware of human nature:
    Fast Checkout should be limited to 3 items.
    (Statistically, that is all your rush buyer is after)
    No trolleys allowed. Simple?

    HINT: Watch the speed of the Operator, that is the critical factor. Is there a packer helping? = Triple speed!

    Finally, shop at clever times!
    Not sure when they are? Ask the Managerial Staff.

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