How not to re-design a supermarket checkout

I work near a Coles Supermarket (for non-Australians: one of the two biggest supermarket chains). I go there most days. I notice when they change things. And lately, they’ve been changing things a lot.

The biggest change for shoppers like me (few items, frequent visits) has been the ‘12 items or less’ checkouts. The checkout area has been re-designed in such a way that has caused confusion, anxiety, and even fights between customers!

First, let me explain the old system: As a customer with only a few items to purchase, you approach the ‘12 items or less services lanes’, join the queue and wait your turn, knowing that you will be served in the order you joined the queue (first in, first out).

The "12 items or less" checkout area at my local Coles Supermarket

The revamped "12 items or less" checkout area at my local Coles Supermarket

The photo above is the new layout of the checkout area. As a customer with only a few items to purchase, you approach the ‘12 items or less services lanes’ (notice the subtle sign close to the roof). Stickers on the floor prompt you to select a register to queue for, and you wait your turn. Meanwhile, the person who chose to go in the queue next to you advances much more quickly. Soon, people who arrived five minutes after you have left the store, but you’re still standing there waiting to be served because the customer in front of you is counting out five dollars in five cent pieces!

Ok, I dramatised that scenario a little… but my point is that in the old system, a customer is served in their ‘rightful’ order – the first to arrive at the queue is the first to be served. In the new system, the order in which you are served is based on several variables: your skill at selecting a queue, the customers in front of you and the service assistant at the cash register.

Teething problems

In the several months since this new system was implemented, I have noted a variety of customer behaviours, despite the affordance measures implemented by Coles (stickers on the floor):

And I’m only there for a total of 20 minutes a week!

The real problem: service has become less efficient

Beyond the teething problems of this new system, my main issue is that service efficiency has decreased!

Most people I know don’t enjoy spending time waiting in queues, especially at the supermarket; they are looking to pay for their shopping items and leave as quickly as possible.

Maintaining one queue per open cash register means that the customer is forced to guess which lane will move the fastest. In order to do this, he/she will try to scan for the number of peopleĀ  in each queue, and the approximate size of their shopping basket.

A customer will often make the wrong choice and get stuck in a slow-moving queue. The customer may become frustrated or impatient, meaning that they leave the supermarket feeling upset or annoyed. This does not sound like the kind of experience Coles would want their customers to encounter. Instead of removing difficult choices, this checkout area re-design puts added pressure on the customer to make the right queue decision – this is not a good thing!

Queueing theory

At the heart of this issue is queueing theory – the mathematical study of waiting in line (yes, really!).

Queueing theory is used heavily in computer programming, and a good analogy for Coles’ queueing theory dilemma is presented by a Microsoft software developer, Eric Lippert. In his blog post, Queueing Theory in Action, he presents a case of two fast food outlets; one with four cash registers and four queues, and one with four cash registers and one long ’serpentine’ queue.

Where there are several queues, customers in any queue may perceive that they have chosen the slow queue, as the queue speeds up or slows down based on the transaction taking place. Customers may feel like it is ‘unfair’ that they are stuck in the slow-moving queue, while others who picked the ‘right’ queue proceed quickly to the cashier.

Almost the only downside of a single queue for multiple cash registers is that, at first glance, it may look bad.

Eric says:

“…by almost every relevant objective metric, by almost every relevant social factor, and in almost every common real-world business scenario the [single queue, multiple cash register system] is preferable”


This quick news excerpt from ABC News in America examines a supermarket using the single queue system, but with a twist.

The solution: Roll-back!

Given that queueing theory is such a well-known and respected concept, I don’t understand why Coles changed the system to the detriment of customers. The main issues associated with the single queue are that customers may consider the queue too long and decide not to purchase anything, or they may join the queue, then leave if they think it is not progressing fast enough. Having several shorter queues may appear as a faster means of getting served, but queueing theory would suggest that this is not true.

These days, time is considered such a precious commodity. I can’t see any other way to fix this checkout problem other than to re-instate the old system.

What do you think?

What do you think about this new checkout system? Surely the old system was better…? Can you offer any insight as to why Coles might have implemented this new system? Comments welcome below!

customer service

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