Customer service and queing theory for grocery stores

Customer service and queing theory for grocery stores


Last week a less pleasant aspect of rural living was shared with you dear readers, however, this week in concert with the article below, I’ve experienced a pleasant surprise in just ordinary shopping: customer service. Folks, customer service is still alive and well outside of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). The most notable example was when we were shopping at Canadian Tire on Saturday…a store clerk startled me by asking if there was something she could help me with! First of all you have to understand, in a GTA Canadian Tire you must find someone to help you and then when you find them, you have to move quickly to speak to them before they see you first and run away! Another thing I noticed here, away from the city, was that the store clerks will leave “their department” and walk with you across the store to another area to help you with what you need (like unlocking the Roundup) and carrying on a pleasant conversation all the while! Customer service and queing theory for grocery stores
Don’t get me wrong, good customer service does exist in the GTA, it is just harder to find. Also in the GTA it doesn’t matter what time you go for a bite to eat — places are always open. Here, bass fishing season opened so all bets are off!
Math and Groceries: Using Queuing Theory to Navigate the Checkout
Every time I go to the grocery store, and finally round the corner to the checkout lanes, cart full, I play the same game. It’s the “Which Lane is Moving Fastest?” game – and I am always the loser.

Though the speed with which a checkout line is moving seems randomly determined (at least until I get into it, when the universe makes it slow to a crawl), there is actually a branch of mathematics dedicated to understanding the phenomenon. It’s called queuing theory, and it helps mathematicians predict what’s going on in those lines.

Queuing theory got its start with Agner Krarup Erlang, an engineer who was charged with determining the perfect number of telephone lines needed by the city of Copenhagen as it rolled out phone service at the beginning of the 20th century. The theory can be applied to any sort of situation where things or people are waiting in a sequence for something to happen to them. A model is created, which can then be studied to determine wait times and queue length, and to maximize efficiency.

Queuing theorists have determined that there is one kind of line, which in my unfortunate experience is rarely seen at supermarkets, that boasts the shortest wait times. From BoingBoing:

“[T]heorists have found that if customers form one long winding line, called a serpentine line, and then are sent to the next available register, wait times can be drastically reduced. (Serpentine lines can be found at banks, where people wait for the next available teller, or at some grocery stores.) Serpentine lines ensure that wait times are minimized because, instead of the traditional-line method, in which one slow person or teller can delay an entire line, a slow person can tie up a register but meanwhile the other customers can be shunted to other open registers. The delay remains, but its impact is much lower that it would be otherwise.”

I am glad to know that my trip to the bank, at least, isn’t as soul destroying as it could be. As far as grocery shopping goes — I think it’s high time I consider hiring an intern… (Kidding!)

Waking up to prickly realities


We are transitioning…from urban to rural living. In leaving behind the grind, hustle & bustle of city life, there are a lot of new things to learn: wells, septic systems, wood stoves, etc. One thing we found out about our new area is that skunks are not very Waking up to prickly realitiesprevalent – but porcupines are! The first night in our new home was marked by Jill and Samson denying my husband his new large screen tv – they both had a run in with a porcupine! The dogs must have done more than sniff it, because they had quills around and in their mouths. We (dogs and humans) met the good doctors at the Princess Animal Hospital. Because Jill is so dark and this dark extends into her mouth in ways of dark pigment the vet was able to take this picture (with our permission) to illustrate the results of congress between dogs and porcupine. For those of you in an area like ours, that has a prevalence of these rodents, this article written by a vet in New England is highly entertaining and informative.

The Best Part of Waking Up — Science in your Cup
If you’re like me, you’re a fairly indiscriminate coffee drinker — If it’s good and hot, then who cares what time it is? Cheers!

But if you’re not like me, and you utilize coffee’s invigorating effects in a systematic way, ASAP Science may have some game-changing news for you. It turns out there are a few best times of the day for you to indulge in a cup of joe, when you can maximize your body’s natural wake-up chemistry — but none of them are immediately after you get out of bed.

Their charming video (found here) lays out the argument. Basically, your circadian rhythm (the body’s sleep/wake cycle which is affected by exposure to light) controls your production of cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone that also determines your alertness level. On it’s own, your cortisol level peaks between 8 and 9am, giving your body a natural impulse to wake up. But consuming coffee during this time doesn’t amplify the cortisol’s effect like you’d think it would. The caffeine’s effect is dulled, which means you need more of it to get an immediate boost — and it also increases your brain’s dependency on larger amounts of caffeine in the long term.

If you can, ASAP Science recommends having your cuppa during cortisol non-peak times. Also, your cortisol levels increase by about 50% after waking generally, regardless of the time of day — so the next morning Jill and Samson get me up at 5am, I’ll try hacking my morning routine and waiting an hour before indulging. We’ll see what happens!

The Hidden World of Bacteriophages


Like me, you may not be aware that 2015 is the official “Year of the Phage”; indeed (also like me), it’s possible you aren’t entirely sure what phages are. Don’t let that stop you: learning about phages — bacteriophages, that is — is fascinating. And, since not many laypeople know about them, you’ll find yourself right on the cutting edge of what we currently know about genetics, bacteria, and virus behaviours!

Very generally, bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria. As such, they are incredibly tiny (measured in nanometers), and scientists are unsure of how many different kinds there are. They are found everywhere, and their actions are full-on survival-of-the fittest:

“They float about, awaiting a microbial encounter, then attach themselves to their preferred targets using a remarkable array of equipment—arms like grappling hooks, tails like hypodermic needles, fibres like teeth—each of which is perfectly adapted to bind to, and then sneak genetic material through, the bacterial membrane. Once inside the cell, some phages replicate at speed, destroying the host by bursting out of it, like a fungus dispersing its spores. Others are parasitic, integrating their DNA with that of their host. Sometimes they even provide it a benefit of some kind.”

Bacteriophages lurk on the level below bacteria; indeed, as The New Yorker’s Nicola Twilley writes, they can be considered the “puppet masters,” controlling how bacteria operate from behind a curtain.

We’re only just starting to learn how bacteria affect our microbiome and our world; it’s consequently easy to see how little we know about bacteriophages. Forest Rohwer, a San Diego University professor and marine microbial ecologist, has sought to remedy this by publishing “Life in Our Phage World,” a “field guide” of sorts covering the bacteriophages now known to science. His aim is increased general knowledge of the fascinating entities that underpin nearly all known biological processes on earth: “I would like just at least some kids,” he says, “when they see a picture of the phage, to know what it is.”

A PDF of Rohwer’s book can be downloaded for free here. I know what I’ll be reading on the dock with a glass of iced tea this summer — How about you?

Tools = Technology?


Last week I attended a workshop, “The Digital Marketing Journey” at IBM and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t the usual yawn fest of corporate self adulation! In fact, it was very useful in that it shared information as to the history of Digital Marketing and insights on Marketing Automation. One of the many tools that I came out with is that I should be utilizing this newsletter on DFC’s website. For those of you longtime readers, we used to do that and with the advent of our new website, that for some reason ceased. Going forward, if you wish to reference any information that you have seen in the DFC Newsletters, they will be reposted as blogs on our website: http://www.dfc.com/blog/ (it’s also in the footer of the website).

The Oldest Stone Tools Show that Technology Predates Humans
The use of tools is generally considered to be an indication of a species’ level of cognition. For a while, it was thought that only humans knew how to use tools, but soon chimpanzees and New Caledonian crows  joined the list. Now, tool use can be found in a variety of different species.

The newest addition to the list not only is not human, but also actively predates the Homo genus by 700,000 years. The oldest known stone tools have been found in Kenya, and are hypothesized to possibly have been used by Kenyanthropus platyops, a homonin who lived in the area 3.3 million years ago. This is the earliest use of technology discovered on earth yet (!), and is documented by the discovering team from Rutgers University in the current Nature.

Paleoanthropologist Jason Lewis, co-author of the study, described the discovery to Smithsonian.com:

“Just after teatime, a radio call came in: Someone had spotted a series of strange stones sticking out of the sediment. Scars cut into the stones set them apart from run-of-the-mill rocks. ‘You can tell these scars are organized,’ says [co-author Sonia] Harmand. The rocks had been hit against one another to detach flakes, a process called knapping. Based on geological records for the area, the artifacts had to be at least 2.7 million years old. ‘We had no champagne that evening, but we were very happy,’ Harmand recalls.

As it turned out, the 149 artifacts eventually excavated from the site were even older. Analyses of magnetic minerals and volcanic ash tufts imbedded in the local rocks put the age of the stones at 3.3 million years.”

This discovery pushes the boundaries of what we know of tool use. For me, it emphasizes that humans are really not that special — we have achieved “mastery” of the earth through sheer luck, and, to paraphrase a certain comic book character, with great tool use comes great responsibility. As for the tools themselves, their exact origins and method of construction are still a tantalizing mystery. Here’s hoping more excavation in that unusual dried riverbed in Kenya reveals more gems!