/ Shopping

Queuing hacks: can you make a queue work for you?

Supermarket queue

Ever had the feeling that you chose the wrong queue in the supermarket?

Does the thought of nearly 13 minutes in a supermarket queue send shivers down your spine? It might summon to mind a vague sense of resentment you’ve felt watching others stroll out of the supermarket and move on with their day while you’re stuck queuing up.

The British are renowned for being excellent at queuing, but being good at something doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want to spend a lot of time doing it.

When we asked over 7000 shoppers which aspects of supermarket shopping were the most irritating in our supermarket survey, long queues were the biggest bug bear, followed by obstructions in the aisles and items on offer being out of stock.

So we conducted a snapshot investigation in the hopes of finding out some useful information about cutting down queuing time. We sent a brave group of mystery shoppers out to navigate queues in Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, with one valiant recruit getting stuck in an Asda queue for 12 minutes and 48 seconds!

Queuing tips

Do you choose your queue strategically or just join the first one you come across?

Before starting the research for my magazine article, the most thought I’d put into queuing mainly centred around how much I disliked having to do it.

I’m most likely to find myself in the supermarket when it’s busiest (lunchtime or after work), so while I was interested to see which supermarket would have the quickest queues, I was also keen to learn what I could do to try to cut down queuing time.

We uncovered four key bits of advice:

  • Overall, we found self-service tills were less likely to have a queue in the first place, so it might be worth giving them a go for this reason, if you’ve been avoiding them up until now.
  • Single, or ‘serpentine’ queues don’t necessarily take less time than multiple individual queues, but studies suggest they feel like they do. They also appeal to our sense of fairness – no matter how long the queue takes, you’ll never feel like you’ve picked a bad one.
  • If you are picking between multiple individual queues, transaction times mean it’s a good choice to go for queues with fewer people who have a lot of items rather than many people holding a basket. The supermarket Iceland told us that paying takes approximately the same amount of time as scanning 15 items.
  • Experts suggest we’re more likely to instinctively choose queues on the right, so it makes sense to try to go for a queue on the left if you want to save time. Our shoppers couldn’t spot any pattern at the tills, but they did notice people queuing for one till while others were empty. As simple as it sounds, it’s worth turning off your autopilot and scanning the checkouts to see if any are free.

Let us know what irritates you the most about shopping. Where have you found the worst queues? And, most importantly, can you offer any of your own tips to help others cut down queuing time?


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Duncan doors are being kept closed in large establishments during the hot spell to aid the functioning of the air conditioning. The problem was with the mentality of the people standing around outside not realising this. Maybe Morrisons were anticipating these people were still outside waiting for the doors to open before attending to the checkout!

This morning I loaded my shopping straight back into the trolley except for the frozen stuff which I loaded into just the one fold up bag I keep in my handbag. The only hold up was when I started to put my PIN number in the card machine before it was ready! I was told to press the yellow key to annul it!

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I’d much prefer it if all shop queues were serpentine – like some banks, post offices, John Lewis – where you get called to the next available till (or counter or whatever). It takes all the risk out of joining the queue where someone can’t find their credit card, forgets an item so goes back to the shelves, fumbles for current vouchers, the till roll runs out……. It, to my mind, fulfills the British sense of fairness.

I have a fatalistic attitude to queues. On the road, I’ll end up in the slowest. But there we are urged not to use a serpentine queue when 2 lanes merge at roadworks. I do find it irritating when most people queue in the left lane only to see (sensible) opportunists coming in front of us from the right hand lane.

Just as there are basket-only queues, I should like to see one checkout that alone handles coupons and vouchers. Just as you think your ordeal is approaching its climax and escape is in prospect, the person in front hauls out of their pocket a sheaf of coupons and vouchers which all have to be examined to check they are valid, in date, and for products purchased. Some of this is done by the bar code scanner but not in all cases. This procedure can add five minutes to the time taken to clear the checkout.

I usually check the people queuing at the checkouts to try and work out which line will move fastest having regard to how much stuff is on the belt, whether there is a half-awake husband available to do some of the packing, whether there is a child in the trolley who will suddenly want a cupcake from the packet, and which is the slickest checkout assistant not prone to idle gossip [M&S is worst for this]. All this assessment is made pointless if there is a secret coupon junkie in the queue. Perhaps they should be obliged to wear a headband so they can be avoided.

The other irritating delay is when an article is missing its bar code or does not register on the computer. This is also outside the limits of prediction. Is it beyond the wit of man to come up with a quick and easy search engine that can assist the operator to identify and price the product? Instead of that we have to wait while a person is summoned to the checkout from the far end of the store and then sent out again to find a replacement before returning to the checkout. Could not the checkout operator communicate with the search party before they start the journey of exploration and discovery? And could not the magic of modern wireless transmission enable the hunter to call back with the required bar code number? It would help if the searchers were stationed near the checkouts and fitted with roller skates.

The queues in John Lewis are great – cash desks always seem to be well staffed even though some shoppers turn up with six cups and saucers that all have to be individually wrapped in sheets of tissue paper.

On the roads, in our area there are signs saying Merge In Turn where two lanes go into one. It seems to work after a fashion if people show traditional courtesy. Those that don’t are best left to get on their way.

Aldi checkouts are pretty slick – they put the bar code on all sides of the packaging so there is no fumbling to align the packet with the scanner. You are also expected to position your trolley at the end of the chute so all your purchases tumble in. Unfortunately a lot of customers haven’t got the hang of that and think it’s time to do some flour arranging.

I’m always amazed by how quickly the queue goes down in my local Aldi, the peole on the checkouts are so quick! I have to say that I was one of those slow people to start off with, I couldn’t keep up 🙂

I avoid queues if I can. I often do supermarket shopping in the evening when it is quiet. If I find a shop busy I get on with other shopping and come back later. When driving, I can usually avoid busy times. The main time I get caught out is when making a phone call, but if I am kept waiting I often give up and try another time.

Yeah true

Another classic “1st world problem” ?

One easy way to avoid these queues is to shop online…

Or just go when the supermarket is less likely to be busy.

First world problem? That condescending expression implies that those in the developing world are concerned about more pressing things than the time it takes to queue for food in a supermarket, and out of pity for them we shouldn’t worry about such trivia either. Try queuing for anything in a developing country and you’ll soon discover otherwise.

I think you’ve missed the point Nick. Far from being a condescending expression towards less fortunate folk, Derek was having a dig at the self-inflicted dilemmas and selfish anxieties that people moan about in the first world because, relatively, they seem to have so little else to worry about. That’s not true of course – they should be worrying about the plight of all the world’s peoples. You are right, however, to draw attention to the difference in queuing to get out of a store filled with masses of lovely food and having to queue for hours every day for a small meal ration or for water.

Re “first world”, “developing world”, “third world” relative problems, even before reading DerekP and nick davies’ comments, the image of Soviets queuing for bread or vodka came to my mind. “Pity” may not come into this thought, but sympathy and a renewed sense of reality and proportion certainly do.

I don’t mind queuing (or eg waiting at the traffic light to cross the street/drive on) and I’m lucky I generally don’t have that busy a life that it’s a problem (I appreciate some folk can be in a real hurry sometimes). My local supermarket also manages its queues very well. I tend to choose the self-service option however, because I often only have a few items in my basket, and also because the two things I dislike intensely at a manned till is when the next shopper is practically leaning against you as you are still paying, or when the till assistant starts scanning the next shopper’s stuff before you have even finished packing our own.

Don’t know what all this nonsense is about queuing. At Sainsbury’s you get a nectar card registered, pick up a scanner from the available holder, scan your shopping as you go (which BTW also helps you keep a tab on your spending as you go) then head for the Fast Scan checkout and away, no problem. If there isn’t a Fast Scan till open, the checkout captain simply asks an available member of staff to the till straightaway.
Never really been a problem, apart from the very occasional time when a re-scan is indicated, randomly generated by the till for no obvious reason.
Never use an ordinary checkout, and certainly never go near the self-scan checkouts as I refuse to have a machine speak at me in place of an ordinary human being.
I understand that Aldi staff are ‘motivated’ to scan through rapidly by bonuses to their wages if they achieve a certain number of scans per shift – or perhaps this is an urban myth ?

Geerebox says:
23 July 2016

What’s the hurry? You’re a glutton for the stress?
Learn to enjoy people-watchng as you wait.


I am very concerned that the upshot of this will be more people prosecuted with consequent financial costs for society. Perhaps more importantly why should we be aiding a business who in the pursuit of profit is prepared to have insecure control of their sales items.

I appreciate people should inherently be honest however life is simply not like that. Some people are desperate for for food or drink and have nothing to lose.

Furthermore I would like to see these payment points emblazoned with a sticker congratulating users for adding to the number of unemployed. Society as a whole can pay for them rather than the supermarket. As you may have guessed I never use these self-pay tills.