Form separate lines

[18 December 2006]

By Rob Horning

I know I spend entirely too much time thinking about waiting in line at Duane Reade (the pharmacy chain that controls New York City). But Tim Harford’s FT column from this past weekend has given me yet another excuse to deliberate on them. Harford cites recent research into the peer effects of quick cashiers on their co-workers, marvelling at the finding that a faster worker encourages others to work faster as well, rather than prompting them to shirk and let the speedy one handle the bulk of the queue.

Duane Reade seems to dread that latter scenario, for whenever customers form a long single line, as they inevitably naturally do, the store manager will show up and berate the customers into forming separate lines at each clerk’s register, never offering a reason why customers should consent to this. (I’m always ready for civil disobediance; I look around at the other customers trying to forge bonds of consumer solidarity as we refuse to give up our sensible single line.) What inevitably happens is that someone who has just sauntered to the checkout will get in front of the fifteen or so people who have been waiting patiently in what seems to be the obviously fairer arrangement. The single line allows customers to feel comfortable in the notion that next available cashier will take the customer who arrived earliest, and no one needs to fear mistakenly getting in the line of a clerk who triple-checks every digit he punches and can’t figure out without a computer that when the total is 2.76 and he’s been handed a $5 and a penny, the necessary change requires only a single coin.

But what sets customers at relative ease is unfair to the speedy clerk, who certainly recognizes the fact that the harder he works, the more work he will do, while his fellow clerks look at the Examiner or check text messages. He seizes the single line as an opportunity to slow down: Without a long line forming at slow clerks’ specific registers, the manager won’t be able to tell who is shirking. Thus everyone has reason to go slow when there is a single line, and you soon have the situation one typically encounters at the Rockefeller Center post office—12 ultramethodical clerks working with all the alacrity of the four-corners offense while the line of customers continues to snake around the Tensabarriers.

So as anxious as it may make customers to pick a speedy clerk with little information to go on, it’s to management’s benefit to have separate lines in order to see who is really working. Not that this helps customers at all—everyone still has incentive to go slow so as to not show up their fellows, and besides, when a good cashier outperforms the others, she’ll usually be promoted away from having to run the register. If one good clerk makes the others work harder, it may be because of competition over who will escape from check-out line purgatory. (Good cashiers also reinforce their speed advantage by generally attracting efficient customers—the ones who have their wallet ready and move quickly themselves—the fast cashiers are very good at expressing intolerance for slow customers; ones who are talking on the phone or who wait until the last minute to try to fish out thirteen pennies from their purse.) Retailers know that slow, methodical cashiers make fewer mistakes with money than those who work quickly, and usually it’s to their advantage to find such people to work the registers. This may be apocryphal, but my father claims that Kmart used to administer an IQ test to their workers, barring anyone who scored above a certain level from running the till.

All of this makes good cashiers something of an anomaly, small miracles in the grim world of retail. I tend to become obsessive about them; I know who the fast clerks are at the Key Foods where I grocery shop, and I have often thought about aligning my shopping routines to their work schedule.

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