The Longest Line

Published 4:09 pm Thursday, March 21, 2024

I seem to have a knack for choosing the slowest lines at any store that has a cashier-operated checkout. What may look like the quickest line inevitably ends up in a long wait. Imprisoned between customers with overflowing carts, malfunctioning debit cards or expired coupons, the “fight or flight” feeling of anxiety kicks in. With nowhere to go, I end up feeling more like a detainee. Sometimes, I worry the meat in my cart will spoil or the milk will turn bad before I can pay for it.

Recently, I was in a local store, waiting in a line with two people ahead of me and three or four people behind me. As usual, one register was open and twenty or more were closed and vacant. The customer at the register was returning things. Many things. Small things. When it occurred to me to begin paying attention to the wad of receipts in the customer’s hand, I heard the cashier say “that’s $2.48 back to your account.” The customer handed the cashier another receipt. “That’s $3.74 back to your account.” When the customer handed her another receipt, I began looking around desperately for a second open register, afraid the returning transactions might literally take all afternoon.

Miraculously, another register opened up. The line behind me, which had grown to six people, stampeded to the other register before I could so much as turn to see which register had opened. I decided to stay put.

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After waiting several more minutes, I surrendered. I left the waiting line and got into the new line. Now I was behind the six people I had previously been in front of. Hours later—no, not really, but it felt like it—I was finally able to pay for my three items and escape the store. I almost ran across the parking lot to my car, feeling like a hostage who’d been freed from captivity.

I read recently that Walmart was going to start charging people to use the self-checkout. Seriously? I already feel like Walmart should pay me for doing the work of a cashier, and now they want to charge me for ringing up my own groceries? When the self-checkout registers first hit the scene, I agreed with another grumbler who’d said “what’s next, customers stocking the shelves?” It’s really daunting to think about the future options—paying to check out your own groceries, or waiting behind thirty-five other people in line for the one available cashier.

If you visit a theme park or some really creative ball parks, you get entertainment while you wait. Music, TVs with videos, even people leading the macarena. Usually with drinks and air blowing fans to keep you cool. At least those places have the decency to try and make you forget that you are waiting.

Some helpful articles suggest passing the time while in line by practicing magic tricks, working on your laptop or making up stories about the people around you. One website I visited offered the unusual time-spending activity of, each time the line moves, clapping your hands, hopping one step and turning around. I don’t think that would go over too well at the grocery store.

One fitness guru suggests doing squats while waiting in checkout lines. Um, no.

Maybe I could tap into the “Zen” side of me with something like this quote suggests: “never be in a hurry, do everything calmly and with a quiet spirit, even if your whole world seems upset.” I think the person who wrote that never had a child to pick up from school or a boss monitoring their lunch break.

Is there a solution to the problem? Besides me having more patience, of course, or reserving vacation days for grocery shopping. The obvious answer would seem to be to open more registers and make it easier for me to give the store my money. But I know nothing about running a store profitably. There is probably some really good reason the stores only keep one or two registers open at a time.

I could go strictly to shopping online. The thought of not having to drive to a store, find a parking spot, locate the items I want inside the store and then wait for hours to pay for those items is very tempting. However, some things, like eggs and bread, are a little difficult to order from Amazon. I hear the pick-up options at stores are very nice. Maybe I’ll try that. But sometimes, I just need to look at all the spaghetti sauce options before I know which one to buy.

Although I don’t have the magic answer to this dilemma, I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard fellow customers complaining as they, too, wait in long lines. Commiserating together is actually not a bad way to bond with perfect strangers. I wonder if, while it’s finding cures for cancer and the national debt, can Artificial Intelligence figure out how to eliminate long check-out lines? I’m sure someone smarter than me can figure this out. I may not know much about running a retail company, but I do know this—if it’s too difficult for customers to pay for their items, they’ll go to other places to get what they need. And, without customers, even the most efficiently-run store in the world can’t stay in business.