The Art and Science of Waiting on Line

Monday, December 12, 2011

The holidays involve a lot of standing on line—in museums, at the movies, and, of course, at stores. Wall Street Journal reporter Ray Smith discusses the science of lines, looking at what’s really happening at checkout. His article “Find the Best Checkout Line” appeared in the Wall Street Journal December 8. He’s joined by Narayan Janakiraman an assistant professor of marketing at Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona who has researched how impatient shoppers get while waiting on line.


Narayan Janakiraman and Ray Smith

Comments [24]

Harlan Barnhart from queens

Hey New York, did you know the rest of the United States wait IN line rather than on it?

Dec. 12 2011 08:40 PM
Peggy Herron from Blkyn.

I was in a box store on Sat. The first thing I notice was the silence. A Christmas miracle, No music . Sales people walked with us to find an item we were looking for. The line was not long . There were line decisions made. A cashier who was alert, a single man ahead of us with a cart filled with groceries. A look down at twenty line choices. I stay put and start a conversation with the woman. behind me. I discuss the history of the Easy Bake Oven that is in her cart. The two of us then explain oven to an Indian man who looks incredulous. The line moves. It is my turn . I pack my own bag and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. The drive from Conn. to Bklyn goes quickly at 10 pm.

Dec. 12 2011 02:41 PM
Lili from Queens

Everyone has smart phones, portable gaming systems, tablets, i haven't noticed the phenomenon of long lines bothering anyone in an affluent neighborhood, it only seems to occur in places when people are poorer and can't afford personal portable entertainment.

Dec. 12 2011 02:39 PM
S Block from NYC

Why is it that people in the NYC area are so less patient generally, as opposed to San Francisco? In my experience, that's not actually true.

People in NYC are tolerant of "being in a hurry" and they are tolerant of "free expression of the desire to be efficient". So, if in SF I am in a hurry, if I let people around me know it, oooooh look at that East Coast jerk!

The West Coast is very intolerant.

Very intolerant of any behavior that deviates from a (very fake and) public display of "being laid back".

And while I'm sending the insults back at people with a low opinion of NYCers, the most aggro people one encounters in NYC are from NJ and other suburbs. People who live in the city have to be able to get along with one another in close quarters. It's the people who torture themselves with a horrible commute and delude themselves with lawns and swimming pools that they love to relax, these are the people who show up in the city on edge.

Dec. 12 2011 01:57 PM
Amy from Manhattan

On packing your own bags, much of the time if you bring your own you have to pack them anyway, & hold up the people behind them.

Dec. 12 2011 01:55 PM
Amy from Manhattan

It's not the type of music--it's that whatever type they play is the blanded-out, "lite" version. Once in a supermarket I heard the muzaked version of "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"...& believe me, it didn't! It was a musical oxymoron.

Dec. 12 2011 01:52 PM

Unless there's a tremendous difference in line length, I just pick the one with the cutest cashier.

Dec. 12 2011 01:52 PM
vaalsamaki K from nyc

For many many years, whatever part of the world I may be, waiting on any line, short or long - including bus stops- , I always have some reading material with me - be it a magazine, newspaper, etc.
It has been a savior

Dec. 12 2011 01:50 PM
Ken from Soho

My super market (Morton Williams) doesn't play music.

Dec. 12 2011 01:49 PM

At Trader Joe's in Brooklyn (Atlantic Ave. & Court St.) I always choose the "inside" line of the two lines -- the one on the right. It's usually faster even if the "outside" line is somewhat shorter.

Dec. 12 2011 01:48 PM
S Block from NYC

this discussion about the music is kinda dumb. They play music because they've tested it and people buy more. Is it because customers are irritated or soothed, or some of both? interesting questions, and I'm sure they've been asked and studied... but that's not "why" they do it, they do it because it has been demonstrated to sell more.

sheesh, it's common sense.

Dec. 12 2011 01:48 PM
Carmine Picarello from Connecticut/San Francisco

Why is it that people in the NYC area are so less patient generally, as opposed to San Francisco?

Dec. 12 2011 01:45 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I agree with Robin--can't stand the seasonal muzak. I have a low tolerance for the regular kind (& I'll spare you my rant about how it's drained of all personality), & what they play this time of year is worse. I fight it by spending as little time in stores as possible, & when I can't get out soon enough, I sing Chanukah songs during Chanukah & Tom Lehrer's Christmas song the rest of the time (aloud but not loudly).

Dec. 12 2011 01:44 PM
Sharon from Clark, NJ

Don't know how I pick them but as soon as it's my turn to be waited on, the cashier has to leave, do a drawer change or fuss with all the bags.

Dec. 12 2011 01:44 PM
Paul I. Adujie from Elmont, NY

I have a perfect solution which works for me all the time....

I always make sure that I have a newspaper or a magazine or a book or some other material to read, when I anticipate waiting in the Post Office or Train Station or travel by train.

I do same in market places or stores.

For supermarkets, I read their Newsweek or Time magazine or some health and fitness magazine FOR FREE while I wait or as they make me wait!

Dec. 12 2011 01:44 PM
Orla from Manhattan

Americans are particularly intolerant of lines (and rain!), in my observation as a non-American, because, I believe, of an inbuilt expectation to be able to control events.

Dec. 12 2011 01:43 PM
Linda Griggs

I'm sorry I had to hang up.
My coping mechanism is to practice math in my head. I count the number of people in line in front of me, then I get an average time for the first 2 or 3 people and get an average for the amount of time I'll have to wait. Then I get the people around me to play with me...

Oh! you just told my story on the air for me, thank you.

I'll have to listen to the podcast to understand about biases.

But I'll tell you, when I'm in the line for the toilet playing the math game I definitely have a bias against girls with long fingernails. I think they take longer because they have a hard time pulling their panty hose up.

Dec. 12 2011 01:42 PM
Matt Scott from Westchester, NY

would be great if your guests could turn their attention to passport control lines in US airports. Sometimes at JFK it's a 2-hour wait, sometimes 10 minutes. Based on what your guests are saying, it's the worst of both worlds. There's a single line to pen passengers in, but then you have to go to the desk you're told - no changing lines. And it can sometimes take 20 minutes per person.

Dec. 12 2011 01:41 PM
kp from nj

I have two pet peeves about lines: 1)a retailer opens a new lane and does not move the shoppers who have been waiting the longest into the new line. setting up a mad-dash free for all 2) when they allow someone with 50 items and a credit card into the '10 items or less -cash only lane'.

Dec. 12 2011 01:36 PM
David A. from West Hempstead

I've seen a new thing at stores like Marshall's where there will be a single, serpentine line with all the impulse items lining the curve.

Dec. 12 2011 01:35 PM
Hal from Crown Heights

I don't wait...I meditate.

Dec. 12 2011 01:32 PM
ROBIN from Manhattan

The constant Christmas music (all American commercial and especially the one with the barking dogs) in grocery and retail stores for two months is very stressful.

Dec. 12 2011 01:30 PM
Jane Q. Public

Please explain why, despite the fact that a line might extend all the way back to the dairy section, some women will fish endlessly in their purse for exact change.

My sense is that men are more efficient in line at the supermarket,

Dec. 12 2011 01:11 PM
Sumukha from Short Hills, NJ

Please explain why Most Asians push and shove and have no regard for a line(Queue) in their native countries. And what makes the Japanese so un-Asian in this behavior. I see this behavior by these visitors/tourists in NY, from the same ethnicity which of course includes south Asians. I am of South Asian decent and have been trying to figure out why?

Dec. 12 2011 08:38 AM

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