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  • Writer's pictureMike von Massow

We Can Improve Efficiency and Safety by Better Managing Lines at Grocery Stores


The adjustment in operations throughout the food system has gone surprisingly well throughout the pandemic. We have adjusted to the new normal, such as it is, well and seem to be moving forward relatively well. As a teacher of operations generally and queuing theory specifically, it has surprised me that many stores, including grocery stores, have not done more to manage lines and capacities to improve flow.

Many of us have stood in line outside a grocery store waiting to get in. It is excellent that stores have managed capacities well by controlling entry. That means, however, that there are often lines in front of the stores. This is not limited to grocery stores. In my only visit to the mall since March (I needed underwear), I saw long lines in front of the Apple store. On weekends there are regularly lines outside of the liquor store. It is my experience that these lines are inconsistent in both social distancing and mask wearing. I believe there are simple things that could be implemented to reduce the lines and associated waiting times. This would improve customer satisfaction (shorter lines) and safety in terms of the risk of viral spread.

Restaurant reservations are an excellent example for food retailers. Many retailers specified times exclusively for higher risk groups like seniors. It would be a relatively easy fix to take reservations for shopping times. People could book (online or by phone) a specific time to start their shopping and show up and get immediate access to the store. There is some uncertainty with respect to how long people spend in the store so the best approach would be to book a certain percentage of capacity by reservation (50-75%) and then buffer the capacity using a line. This would mean fewer people getting frustrated in lines (happier customers) and lower risk of COVID transmission because of shorter lines.

Amusement parks may also provide an idea for managing lines. People with special access

passes can register at rides (an example is the Disney "Fast Pass) and then return at the specified time to get priority access without having to wait. I say Lululemon do a version of this in my recent mall visit. People registered for a virtual line and then were texted when it was their turn. This disperses the line rather than having it clustered at the store entrance. Once again you have happier customers and a safer environment.

Inside grocery stores we have seen some smart initiatives. To facilitate physical distancing most food retailers have implemented a single line for all registers. This lowers average waiting times for customers to check out (it can be proven mathematically) and, therefore, moves people through more quickly.

Retailers can and should consider reservations or virtual lines/fast passes to reduce lines. This will make for happier and healthier customers.


Recommended citation format: von Massow, Michael. "We Can Improve Efficiency and Safety by Better Managing Lines at Grocery Stores". Food Focus Guelph (95), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, August 11, 2020.


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