Best practices: handling a line of customers

Maybe it’s just years of computer experience, but I’m always surprised that only a few places handle lines correctly. Even McDonald’s, one of the most efficient food places, doesn’t do it well (although I guess their approach is to try to eliminate the line, which is admirable).

Fry’s electronics, on the other hand, does it beautifully:

  • Have a single line
  • Have multiple registers (or tellers, or customs agents, TSA scanners, etc). I’ll call them “processors” from now on, as they perform whatever process people are lining up for.
  • The person at the front of the line goes to the next available processor.
  • Don’t split the line at any point: there should never be a line for any given processor. The line should be for the entire group of processors.  The reason for this is that if a single customer takes a long time and hold up a processor, it doesn’t hold up the rest of the line, or a small segment of a line.  If you let a small line occur for each processor, a slow customer will hold up that line – unnecessarily.  Don’t split the line.

This approach is fast, fair, simple to implement and simple for customers to understand.  It also lets your customer get out (and pay) faster, decreases processing costs, and gives you an opportunity to form the line with walls of candy and other impulse buys like Rite Aid and Fry’s do.

Places that do it well (if not fast):

  • DMV (scary, huh – uses a ticket system to generate a line, at least in Santa Clara)
  • Social Security Administration (also uses a ticket system, in Mountain View at least)
  • Santa Clara County Recorder (ticket system)
  • Fry’s Electronics
  • Most airport ticket/baggage check lines
  • Rite Aid (usually via a makeshift line)

Places that fail:

  • Grocery Stores – almost always, and horribly
  • Target
  • Walmart
  • Many customs lines (they fail by splitting the lines near the end)
  • Many airport security lines (they split the line at some point near the end)
  • Some fast food restaurants (e.g. McDonald’s)
  • Most airport security lines, although you need a little line for each conveyer/scanner by necessity due to the length of the screening process.