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!)