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The Whole Foods Secret: A Longer Line with Shorter Wait Times

Ask a random group of people about their pet peeves and you’re likely to hear at least one complaint related to waiting in line. No wonder: it can be boring and frustrating, and often seems unnecessary or unfair—think about the last time you waited longer at the supermarket than someone who arrived after you. Nevertheless, we spend quite a lot of time doing it; as much as a year or two of our lives, according to some estimates.

If you’re a business owner, you want to reduce the amount of time your patrons wait in line to a minimum. Like many businesses, you’re probably using a traditional multiple-line system, with several parallel lines that customers have to choose from. If these lines aren’t properly managed and involve a long and unpleasant wait, customers may renege on an intended purchase and even be discouraged from returning to your business. That could mean the loss of a lot of potential revenue.

So, what can you do? You can try a different line system, used by banks, post office branches, and some fast food restaurants: a single line that feeds into multiple cashiers. It’s also been adopted by major supermarket chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. What’s so great about this system?

A key advantage of having one line is that—despite the fact it is longer—the average wait time is often shorter. That’s because the single-line system doesn’t suffer from the inefficiencies that can plague multiple lines. In the multiple-line system, for example, customers may not notice that a checkout counter is open, leading to long delays. In addition, a single-line system seems fairer, since customers who arrive first are always served first.

Of course, there are also potential drawbacks to the single-line system. A single line, for instance, is wrongly perceived by customers as slower simply because it’s longer, which might deter some. And you need enough floor space for the long line you get with this system.

Not sure yet if you should use a single-line system? Figure out the actual wait times at your business before deciding, and learn about other ways to reduce wait times. This is just one small aspect of Quantic’s Operations Management Fundamentals course about how to make any business—large or small—run more efficiently.

To learn more about Operations Management Fundamentals and other ways to make your business more efficient, sign up here


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