The Queue Question: Why My Queue in the Grocery Store Moves the Slowest

a grocery queue showing five customers

Let me paint a picture:

You are at a grocery store. It is well-stocked, and the groceries appear fresh. The store has enough people to make you feel confident about its appeal but not so many that you need Luke Skywalker-level navigation skills to avoid colliding with other shoppers. 

All in all, it’s a lucky day.

You pick out your groceries, including limes and lettuce, and you’re on your way, smiling to yourself, on the verge of setting your new personal record for the shortest shopping time ever.

Until you reach the billing counter.

There are six billing counters, each with a cashier manning them. They all seem to have an equal number of people in the queue. You pick your lucky number 4 and stand in the line to be served. 

So far, so good. 

A few minutes pass, and you start to get just a bit curious. You start counting your place in the queue, and it’s still six, the same as when you started. You mentally chide yourself for your impatience, take your cell phone out of your pocket, and bury yourself in your news feed.

You know you will have moved in the queue the next time you look up from your phone.

A few more minutes pass, but the news on your cellphone is boring. You have an impulse to count your position in the queue again, and it’s still six. Something’s going on.

You peek at the counter, and the lady out front seems to be bagging her groceries. There are a lot of them. You can’t help but peek into the carts of others ahead of you, and it doesn’t look good.

There is no one behind you in the queue. Now is an excellent time to switch to the other queue!

The one across from you looks like it’s moving fast, the carts are all lighter, and the cashier seems super-efficient.

This one’s going to be better for you.

Five minutes later, you’re still spot number six in the queue. The cashier at the other queue temporarily deserted his station to answer a call. The queue you were initially in is moving fast now, and the cashier seems to have had a fresh shot of Compound V. Dang! You’re tempted to switch back, but you listen to your good inner cop.

“Where’s your loyalty, buddy?”

Yes, you have a spine and will stick with your decision. You’ve spent too much time to desert your queue now. The sunk cost is too much to bear. Unsurprisingly, your original queue continues to serve the customers incredibly fast. You physically can’t bring yourself to move; you’re rooted to the spot. You never thought loss aversion bias was a real thing, did you?

Having buried your head in your device again, you notice an ad for an electronic appliance, a Morphy Richards electronic kettle. You don’t stay with it long because it triggers painful memories of a law.

Murphy’s at that.


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