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A Line Primer

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Dec 10, 2011

Done with grocery shopping, you scan the registers and select the shortest line. Standing there for 2 minutes, your time flies. Another minute? Okay. But then, according to research, when the time hits 4 minutes, you believe you have been there for 6 and 5 minutes feel like 10.

In one unscientific study, a reporter compared wait times at 5 NYC supermarkets. He concluded that a central line that directed people to one of 30 registers moved people along quickly. By contrast, with a slow checker or a problem buyer delaying customers, the slowest system was the traditional line at each register. (Studies have confirmed his conclusions.)

Random line facts:

  • To choose a quicker line, a researcher says to divide the number standing in line by the number of customers that join the line each minute. (But, how much time will that use up??)
  • Waiting in line, men typically become impatient at 2 minutes and women at 3.
  • Some suggest avoiding lines with people who tend not to rush like the elderly.
  • Lines surely sped the demise of the former Soviet Union. Employed by the state, sellers cared little about customer service.  Consequently, hours of standing in line eliminated massive amounts of productive activity.

Discussing the merits of the reverse pyramid and back to front, econlife looked at airplane boarding lines here.

The Economic Lesson

A line represents a transaction cost. Defined economically, cost means sacrifice. Standing in line, we are sacrificing what we otherwise might have been doing and thereby adding to the cost of the purchase. During the business day, the transaction cost of a line can be high. During a summer vacation, the cost of standing in line for ice cream can be minimal.

An Economic Question: Using the economic definition of cost, explain why certain people might not mind standing in line while others avoid the experience.

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