How many checkout lanes should I have?

Cashier helping customer at point of sale

One of the biggest concerns with operations management is the efficiency of checkout lanes, both staffed and self-serve. Whether you’re a grocery store, coffee shop, or gas station, a good checkout is critical to good shopping experiences. There are a lot of factors that play into the checkout experience, but one is above all in importance. Waiting in line. Letting your customer wait a few extra minutes can mean impulse buys and reduced staffing costs. However, letting them wait too long can actually lead to less frequent business and a bad reputation. There is a possibility for short term gain but long term losses.

How do I find the balance?

Regardless of the service you provide before the checkout experience, your customer will remember checkout the most clearly. Having the perfect amount of checkout lanes is incredibly important. Your customers want to feel like you’re doing your best to accommodate their needs. You have to balance this with staffing and equipment costs, though.

This is actually something called the “labour illusion”. If a customer sees 3 checkout lanes in your store while they wait in line and only sees 2 clerks attending to customers, they feel as though the store is cutting corners through understaffing. If the same customer sees all 3 checkout lanes manned by a clerk, however, their overall experience of waiting in line becomes positive since you are showing them that you are doing the absolute most to cater to their needs. According to a Harvard Business Review article, customers that wait in line but see employees doing more end up happier than customers who don’t wait in line at all (HBR, 2011).

So, how many checkout lanes do I need?

What does this mean for the number of checkout lanes you should have, then? You should always try and have just enough checkout lanes so that your customers don’t have to wait longer than 10 minutes (Irisys, 2012). For high-throughput sites like gas station c-stores this number actually decrease down to approximately 5 minutes. This is usually the maximum amount of time a customer will wait. Any more and they may start putting their items back and leaving without a purchase, otherwise known as reneging.

If customers see that the line up is going to be longer than 10 minutes, the will likely balk. The number of tills to counteract these effects will vary by retailer so the best approach to deciding on this is to take a look at security footage. See how much time your cashiers take to get through transactions, and how many customers you have on average. If you find that your cashiers constantly fall behind and customer have to wait, it may be time to add an additional checkout lane.

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