New queueing strategy in Target and other stores

At the front of the Target checkout queue

Notice the new way the queues to the checkouts work in Target, K-Mart, Big W?   Everyone is in one big queue, served by many checkouts – rather than separate queues for each checkout.

Does it really work?  The line is dismally longer, making me feel like it’s going to take a really long time based on my previous experiences.  Target sneakily makes everyone walk past their confectionery and other knick knacks.  However, it seems that the line does move more often.  But do you wait any shorter than you used to?  According to queueing theory – the study of queues – you’re meant to!

By making everyone queue in one queue only, in a FIFO (first in first out) mode, this is meant to reduce the average wait time and improve the feeling of all those in the queue.

Think about it:

  • The customer to be served next is always the customer who has been waiting the LONGEST.  In this regard, it is fair.
  • A side effect of this is you don’t end up comparing the speed of your queue with the one next to you.   EVERYONE is in the same queue, being processed at the same rate.  So you should be happier 🙂
  • And since there is only ONE queue, you don’t have scan all the queues to figure out which one to choose.  There is only one to choose!
  • Hold ups in one register will not hold up the next person in the queue as they will be served by the next available register.   In the old system, if one queue was held up, then EVERY person in that queue would be held up too, magnifying the cumulative waiting time for all customers.
  • Because the one queue is being serviced by multiple registers, it moves faster, hence giving you, the customer, the perception that the checkout register people are actually working.
  • The shop can open up another register with no need to re-organise the people in the queue.

So Target thinks they have improved their queueing system, and they have!

But can their system be improved?

Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Introduce some indication to customers how long it will take to get to the front of the line.   This is done in Disneyland and some other queues where it can take a long time.  Maybe it’s not required in Target if the wait is only a few minutes, but around Christmas time and big sales time, placing a notification like this will help let customers tune their expectations, and hence make them happier.
  • Always staff the registers closest to the queue first.   On the weekend, I noticed that many of the registers near the queue were empty.  The problem with this is, once register X has finished with the last transaction, they press their buzzer to call the next customer Y.  But if register X is far away, there is much lost time waiting for customer Y to reach the register.  The registers farthest away might have to wait 15-30 seconds for the customer to make their way to them.  This is wasted time.    They didn’t have this problem with the old system since the next customer was probably just a metre away.    If I were Target, I’d do some measurement of how long each register spends between customers and see if there is a correlation between time and where they are positioned.

Some other posts I stumbled on that you may also find interesting:

Queueing Theory in Action – http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ericlippert/archive/2009/08/20/queueing-theory-in-action-plus-frogs.aspx
How not to design a Supermarket checkout – http://www.katherinealsop.com/2009/11/17/how-not-to-re-design-a-supermarket-checkout/
The Checkout Line – Why is it so slow?  – http://www.betterprojects.net/2011/01/checkout-line-why-is-it-so-slow.html

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