Shopping checkouts and perception

I was doing my weekly grocery shopping today and I was waiting in line to checkout. Now it was close to normal shopping hours (as in the shops outside were closing so there was less people in the shopping centre, so the supermarket was going into ‘extended shopping hours’)… and they started to shut down checkout lines.

They were going from 5/15 checkouts, to 3 checkout lanes.

It got me thinking, I’ve never seen 15/15 checkouts ever opened. They are all functioning, but usually you’ll get 5, and in busy times, you might get 10. But I’ve never seen 15/15. Is it by coincidence that supermarkets may have a large amount of checkouts that aren’t used? I understand that there might be 1-2 for contingency in case some of them fail during a busy period, but that would make the total number around 12, rather than 15+. There are also about 15 staff members around the entire supermarket ‘doing their own thing’.

However, despite seeing only 3 lanes open, and I was in a line, I didn’t feel that I was stressed out about waiting.

Saying that, in another supermarket (Aldi), there is 5 checkout lanes, they get up to 4 working at a time, but usually only have 1-2 on (and there are always people in there), and I think the perceived time waiting feels much longer than waiting in 3 lines with 15 lanes shut. Furthermore, Aldi only have about 4 people who are constantly on their feet operating the store.

Now knowing that supermarkets are strategic goldmines for marketing (like putting the milk at the far wall, putting certain products in eyelines), I wonder if anyone knows if the abundance of shopping lanes is deliberate part of the strategy by supermarket designers, or is it just that they want to make sure that there are enough lanes. Ideas?

I think if they cut down on the amount of lanes, you would feel a lot slower. Also if you decreased the amount of people around, it will feel a lot slower (less chance to get things done)

If they increased the amount of people looking like they were working, it would feel faster, because it would look like there is more work happening around the place.

It’s a curious thing, and I really enjoyed thinking about little conspiracy theories like this. Thinking about design always amuses me.

Interesting thought, but I disagree. I think they have 15lanes because they probably know they will need them. I’ve been in supermarkets with probably more than 15 checkouts, and the queues being so long at all off them that I’ve considered giving up, but you don’t since you have no choice. Day before Christmas etc…

Seeing multiple closed checkouts doesn’t make me feel like I’m moving faster, it’s making me think “open another checkout already FFS!”. If I can see that the store is doing all in its powers, I find more peace. If I see the opposite, I get irritated, and likely not a returning customer.
You are correct that if you see people working it feels better, but they should be working towards the right thing - which is doing what’s best for ME at that very moment :wink: “Stop stocking those noodles and get behind the register!!!”.

I thing the space may have an impact on how you feel. At the first store with 15 lanes I assume theres a lot of open space in the waiting area. While at the one with 5 you stand in between shelf rows, way past the designated waiting space, close-up scenery making it more obvious how little you have moved.

Milk at far wall, that’s genius. Now I feel stupid for not realizing it earlier…

If you have ever been to the grocery store at the busiest times they have most of the registers open, but it would not be cost effective to have 15 employees during non peak times. And the guy stocking the shelf is not a cashier. Grocery store positions are specific, stockers, cashiers, baggers… They can’t just switch because there is a lot of training that goes into each position.

However, I will say I have never seen all 40 registers open at target. I think they are just building a wall of defense so you can’t get by.
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I realize that. But the point is that people are less rational when they are stressed. So seeing someone doing something “wrong” or not doing anything, only makes things worse. If they can’t cut the waiting time, they can reduce frustration. Waiting line psychology is a science.

Have you ever seen a long line and decided to take another lap around the isles? Maybe it’s on purpose.

Have you ever seen a long line and decided to take another lap around the isles?

Funny you mentioned that. I did it last night when I was picking up “twelve items of less” .

When I enter the store I always mentally guage how long it is going to take to get out by the number of folks waiting in line. When I walked in last night there were four lanes open, plus the “express” lane, and there was virtually no one in line. By the time I found my items and got back to the check out lanes they were swamped … literally three or four deep, and the express line was six deep … WHERE DID ALL OF THOSE PEOPLE COME FROM!!!

I had actually forgotten an item so I did make another lap, and by the time I got back to the front of the store there were only a few of the throng left and I walked right up the express cashier. It’s obviously a “when it rains it pours” situation, but as long as the cashiers keep their noses down and minimize “chatting” with the customers the lines move along quicker than we realize. Except when I’m in a hurry that is. …

Milk on the back wall, adjacent to the breakfast cereal section; eggs adjacent to the bacon and other meats; canned vegetables across from the “dry” pasta display all make marketing sense. But “diet” foods on the opposite side of the aisle from potato chips (crisps), pretzels, and other savory snack foods? Not sure how the psych works on that one…

This store also re-arranges their vegetable section daily. The items in the wall-cooler display are always in the same spot, but the fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, etc., are moved around to different spots on the floor. I BELIEVE, this is to create a feeling of “abundance and freshness”. I’ve shopped in this store for years and know the “green grocer” fairly well … his only explanation is that this is what his manager instructs him to do; for him it’s a PITA (at least he knows he’ll always have a job!).

mrtwills… I PM’ed you.


There are a lot of interesting things in this area around perceptions.

For example - the fastest way to actually deal with lines is by queuing, where everyone waits on 1 line and goes to the first available cashier. This way you never get on a line behind someone who is taking forever, and the line with 10 more people manages to move faster. Perception wise however, many customers don’t like this because at peak times the line may be 20+ people long (vs 3 people long on 7 lanes) and most people think the line of 3 people will always move faster.

You would be surprised at the amount of metrics that most stores, especially any large retailers go through to calculate the minimum amount of labor required to keep the store running and keep customers happy enough to return.

One of my favorite statistics was the fact that on average, self checkout transactions are almost always longer than cashier based transactions. But because you are more involved the average user “Feels faster”. Also the fact that 1 out of every 3 self checkout transactions usually requires assistance anyways.

So to your point - perceptions dictate much more than actual throughput.

But this also why you think “the other line is moving faster”

Perception is fact- if it ‘feels faster’ then it is faster. Riding a bike in heavy traffic is the same- if you ask drivers what’s faster they’ll say a car, even though all these bikes whizz past them.

A supermarket near me in the city was recently refurbished and has 30+ self-service machines, compared to about 10 ‘checkout chicks’. Being in the city the majority of purchases are 6 items or less (people buying their lunch, or picking up a few few things after work) so most use the self-service machines. These machines are badly set up- there is no linear flow to the task- eg- you start at the left and move right, the receipt is printed at the top right of the machine, but coin change and note change come out at two different points- to the left and below. You see so many people looking around for where their change has gone.

Having worked in a supermarket recently, I might be able to give you some inder info :laughing:

These machine break down sadly quite often. Where I used to work, there were 10 cashes and it happened a few times that 2 cash were broken. Also when they get a hiccup, like a BSOD or a printer jam, it’s much faster for the cashier to change cash and have somebody else fix the problem rather than make everybody wait in line while the cashier finds the problem. Next up, cashiers go on break and it’s usually easier and less time consuming to just lock the cash and come back in 15 rather than take out the money or what ever. Also the cash are sometimes used to do other tasks within the computer system, somebody from management might need a cash to do some other stuff than passing customers. It’s also worth noting that supermarkets are often built when they think there will a house boom in an area. I think the customer flow is unpredictable at that point, so they might as well build more cashes than having to remodel the supermarket. Bottom line, I don’t think most places purposely put more cashes then needed.

I think I’d feel like time would be longer if you’re waiting in line and there are 15 empty cashes, I’d feel like the company is purposely under-staffing and doesn’t care about me. Could your perceived waiting time have something to do with the fact that you went after usual business hours, day is over, no stress, no kids screaming ?

I think you guys are over thinking it a bit, most people taking decisions in supermarkets aren’t geniuses. Some of the stuff is thought out but I’d say that milk is at the back because the racks get filled from behind in a walk-in fridge. :unamused:

(is it proper etiquette to quote myself?)

Not sure I follow you here. Big retailers do measure transaction times and statistically self checkouts are slower . That doesn’t mean that the person scanning 6 things will be slower than a person with a full cart, but across all of the transactions that same person scanning their full cart themselves will be considerably slower than a cashier. Self Checkout does improve customer satisfaction (even with the crap designed machines) which is why retailers roll them out, not for actual throughput improvements.

Visited a lot of retailers around the world. Most retailers have entire teams dedicated to maximizing the performance of those machines and the labor costs associated with it. If they have to pay 1 un-needed cashier per store and they have 1000 stores, that’s a huge deal.

Found out recently that one retailer spends over a billion in labor alone just to restock the shelves at night. So a 10% reduction of labor winds up being a huge area for cost reductions.

“Perception is fact”: If people think the world is flat, because it looks flat, they’ll believe it’s flat, so it is flat, even though it isn’t.

It is a cost/ speed relationship, the self-checkout is slower but is cheaper per minute so is cheaper overall. Maybe the slowness is a factor supermarkets can take advantage of- more time in a queue looking at gossip magazines and lollies means more purchases.

I worked in a bike shop in a big Westfield. The centre management were all about the ‘science of shopping’, the Gruen transfer, how 90% of people entre a shop on the left hand side etc. The milk is always at the back of a supermarket as it is the number one purchase, so people have to go through the whole store to get it, past all the products designed to make you buy them. Department stores always have the perfumes at the entrance , to get women in the store (who buy more).

Did they assess that by a per self check/per cashier, or by area utlised? I definitely see self checkouts are slower than 1 person, but what 3 self checkouts for the same area as a single cashier?

What I like about the self-checkout is that it seems to really create a 12-items-or-less checkout lane that polices itself. I don’t think you can do a shopping trolley load with it.

That’s on a per transaction basis. Now usually stores have 3-4 self checkouts per 1 employee so the reduction in labor is still there, but the overall throughput doesn’t necessarily increase by switching 1 casher over to a self-checkout. You reduce headcount and labor costs but you still need to add more machines to keep the level of throughput the same.

The ideal solution is a personal shopping solution like this:

By scanning and bagging everything as you shop the only thing you need to do at the end of the checkout is pay and you’re done. Although implementation of this isn’t always the best (poor signage, device failures, random audits needed to reduce shrinkage, etc)

If the supermarkets think by under-staffing and having me wait in lines I’m going to buy more, they are sorely mistaken. I’ve taken my business elsewhere for exactly that reason. There is a supermarket in Australia that starts with a C (and another that starts with a W) which among other things (such as undercutting farmers and suppliers, giving their staff 3 hour shifts so they don’t need a break) are constantly understaffed.

I live in a semi rural area - the Adelaide Hills and a “Foodland” supermarket which sells local produce and has ample staff has just opened. It’s a bit more of a drive, but buying local outweighs the extra 5 km I drive in my opinion.

Nothing beats a real market though. A big selection of fresh organic coffee, asian condiments like galangal, kaffir lime leaves and tamarind, fresh pasta sauce and real rspca or certified organic free range eggs aren’t very common in supermarkets here.

A little bit on Shopping Centre and Supermarket design:

Some interesting thoughts, here.
I work in the UK, and here we’re seeing more and more supermarkets invest in self-service checkout machines. As a product designer, I feel the machines we have here have some serious usability issues, and would love the chance to improve things by working on the next gen machines. I recently wrote an article about this an offered some suggestions. As it’s relevant, I thought I’d pass on the link:

Nice first post MAtt! I front paged you: Super Market Self-Checkout by Matt Corrall - Core77

Thanks very much, yo!
My first post and I’m on the front page… I only hope I can keep the standard up.