Ten Checkout Lanes?

My local Safeway store has 10 checkout lanes. Nine of these are regular checkout lanes, and one of them is for self-checkout. The self-checkout has 6 stations where customers can tally their purchases and bag their own groceries.

When I visited the store Saturday afternoon to do some shopping for the week, just two of the 9 checkout lanes were open. While waiting in line at one of the two open lanes, it occurred to me that I had never seen more than three, or perhaps four lanes open in all of the times (hundreds!) that I have visited the store.

With time to kill while I waited, I wondered why grocery stores are built with 10 checkout lanes any more these days. When my local Safeway was remodeled five or six years ago, it came with ten bright and shiny checkout lanes to replace the ten less shiny lanes that were bulldozed when the old store was torn down. In all of that time, even of the busiest days, like Thanksgiving, I’d never seen more than half of the nine lanes open.

If I were a reporter, I might have located the store manager and asked if they knew of a time when all nine regular checkout lanes were in operation. I’d have been surprised if they could give me even one instance. It is understandable. After all, nine open lanes means paying nine people to attend to the checkout lands. It means needing to pay for additional baggers, and if there is never a need for more than four or—rarely—five lanes, then why pay for nine people?

But that begs the question: why have nine regular checkout lanes at all? Why not have five lanes, and use the space currently occupied by the surplus lanes for additional stock? Passing through the store, even at a busy time, those idle checkout lanes stand out.

Often, the longest line at the grocery store is for the self-checkout lane. It is the lane I use most frequently. But it seems to me there should be some kind of additional discount for using the self-checkout lane. You swipe your own merchandise and bag your own groceries. And what benefit does the lane provide? It might make checkout faster if more of the regular lanes were open, but with only a few open at any given time, people gravitate to the self check-out lanes.

Self-checkout is often like airport security. If you get behind a frequent-flier, you can move through security quickly (presuming that you yourself are also a frequently flier). There are people who can move through self-checkout quickly, and those who seem bewildered by the entire system. They look as though they have no idea how they found their way into this line in the first place.

I can tell you how they got there: they followed the rows of idle checkout aisles, until they found some activity at the far end—which turned out to be the self-checkout.

One comment

  1. Nice piece. I’m surprised you didn’t dive deeper into how this applies elsewhere. eg. I have four guitars, but I only (rarely) ever play only one of them.

    I guess this could easily turn into an anti-clutter piece, which is probably not what you’re going for, but there is room for more exploration.


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