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Find the Best Checkout Line

Retailers Try to Speed Up; What Works, What Adds to Shopper Aggravation

The wait feels endless. The checkout line hasn't moved in 10 minutes. Why did you pick this line? But you can't risk jumping into another queue that may be slower. Tick, tick, tick. Maybe you don't even want this sweater. Would it be quicker to bail and buy it at home online?

The retail checkout line may be tedious any time of year, but it is worse at the holidays, when stores are packed and people are more likely to wait it out to meet a Dec. 25 deadline than walk away empty handed.

Several retailers are trying new approaches to get shoppers through more gracefully as online shopping threatens to continue siphoning off sales. Nearly half of U.S. consumers say they plan to shop online this holiday season, up from about a third last year, according to a recent survey from consulting firm Deloitte.

Much of the work grows from more nuanced understandings of how people perceive waiting in line. Shoppers tend to become impatient quickly and fail to take into account key indicators of what may slow down a line. They experience remorse when they feel they've chosen the wrong (i.e. slower) line. And they prefer to choose their own line rather than wait in a single-file line for the next available register—even though that set-up has proven to be faster, research on queuing shows.

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Stores have tried to solve line issues in various ways, including copying the way Apple Inc. stores use hand-held devices to ring up purchases anywhere in the store. Among other steps, Home Depot Inc. has added mobile checkout, and, like Whole Foods Market Inc. and various big-box retailers, has been expanding self-checkout lanes.

For the holidays and peak times, Walt Disney Co. store employees are trained to entertain customers with Disney trivia while they are in line. Once customers reach the cashier, Disney employees switch to focus on efficiency, not entertaining. "Once they get to the register, it's about ensuring they have everything they need, do they need more than one bag, do they need a gift receipt, a gift certificate," says Paul Gainer, senior vice president of retail for Disney Store.

For the first time, Disney employees this year are also prescanning items while shoppers are in line. Disney is using this approach in 140 of its 215 North American stores after testing it in 30 last year, Mr. Gainer says. And the stores maintain a single-file line, which Mr. Gainer says is perceived as less chaotic to shoppers than multiple lines.

Home Depot is trying to cut through checkout chaos by instructing cashiers to stand at the front of their registers so customers can tell they are open, a move it began last year while updating its cashier training. "We've come to understand that we're a very large convenience store to consumers," and they expect to get in and out of the store similarly quickly, says Matt Carey, the home improvement chain's chief information officer.

Another change: As soon as there are three or more people waiting in a line, the retailer deploys "line busters," employees who scan items in shoppers' carts before they reach the cashier, says Mr. Carey, who works closely with the retailer's operations team on line speed.

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Most shoppers simply develop their own strategies and superstitions. "I make my selection based on how full the carts of other shoppers are, the age of the person or if the person has children with him or her. These shoppers are almost always slower," says Rebecca Mecomber, a married mom of four teenagers from Utica, N.Y. She also factors in the cashier's gender and age. "Young male cashiers are usually faster but are very sloppy and careless when they bag items. Middle-age ladies are slower but take better care of glass objects."

Shoppers are likely to abandon a line that might take between one and 10 minutes to get through after the first two or three minutes if they feel it isn't moving sufficiently fast enough for them, says Narayan Janakiraman, an assistant professor of marketing at Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. Dr. Janakiraman is lead author of a paper to be published this month based on studies of 400 adults between 2006 and 2009 by professors from the University of Arizona and the Wharton School, on how impatient shoppers get in lines.

Envirosell, a retail consultancy, has timed shoppers in line with a stopwatch to determine how real wait times compared with how long shoppers felt they had waited. Up to about two to three minutes, the perception of the wait "was very accurate," says Paco Underhill, Envirosell's founding president and author of the retail-behavior bible "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

But after three minutes, the perceived wait time multiplied with each passing minute. "So if the person was actually waiting four minutes, the person said 'I've been waiting five or six minutes.' If they got to five minutes, they would say 'I've been waiting 10 minutes,'" Mr. Underhill says.

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Consumers felt less stressed when there was an employee or an electronic screen near the front of the line to direct shoppers to the next open register, Mr. Underhill found. Food stores such as Whole Foods, Starbucks Corp. and Trader Joe's take this approach, and clothing stores such as Uniqlo and Nordstrom Rack at times also use this strategy.

Gap Inc.'s Old Navy is in the process of adding lanes chock-a-block with inexpensive impulse items. Though grocery stores have long put impulse items near the register, Old Navy wanted to avoid a supermarket-like ambience so selected specialty sodas, superhero lunch boxes, glitter-covered piggy banks and other items it thought looked "nostalgic and convenient," a spokeswoman says. Old Navy's line makeover is part of an overall store revamp.

When shoppers look back at their overall waiting experience, they tend to put more weight on how fast or slow a line moved toward the end of their wait. Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at INSEAD, the international business school with campuses in Abu Dhabi, France and Singapore, co-conducted research with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, to determine people's feelings about a line's progression.

Participants recorded how they felt at any given time while in line. If a line moved slowly toward the end, even if it moved swiftly at the start, "the person expressed dissatisfaction, not only with the line but sometimes even the store," Mr. Carmon says. "If the line moves quickly toward the end, they expressed positive feelings."

In a separate study, Mr. Carmon found shoppers tended to be attracted by how short a line was rather than how quickly the line was moving or how many items people waiting had in their carts. "Short lines may be short for a reason," he says, adding that others may have left a short line because it was taking too long.

In a research project conducted during last year's holiday season and posted on YouTube, Bill Hammack, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, concluded that a single-file line leading to three cashiers is about three times faster than having a separate line for each cashier.

Any delay in the multiple-line system will stop the line completely, while a delay in a single line might just delay one shopper. Although the single-line method may be faster, Mr. Hammack says customers generally prefer to "jockey for position" in separate lines.


Write to Ray A. Smith at ray.smith@wsj.com