The Art of the Queue

Thanks to a long and intensive study of supermarket queues,  I have insights into the art of choosing the right line and am prepared to share the results of this market research or free – only here on Cardboard Box, No Gold Watch.

Alas, gone are the days when a queue was a quiet and orderly place, a chance to see your neighbours and catch up with the gossip: now it’s more like one of those Death Race films, where the idea is to cheat and damage your neighbour just to advance.

Queues, like death and taxes, are part of modern life: online payments have lessened the number of the places in which we have to queue, but not the time we spend in them. Of course, by shopping online you can do away with the wretched things altogether, but where’s the fun in never going to the shops?

If the supermarket is part of your life but you hate the 15 or more minutes you spend waiting to be served while your ice-cream melts, your champagne loses it’s chill and your ready rotisserie chicken goes from hot and crispy to luck warm and rubbery, here are a few tips to assist with your queue choice.

And remember: even if there if a single queue [as in a bank or an airport] thin carefully before choosing between the Trolley Queue or the Ten Items or Less Express.

1] If you have to shop on Pensioners Day, avoid a queue with elderly people. Imagine, you are in a bit of a hurry, you have a block of butter, a newspaper and carton of milk.

You’re in luck – there’s only one person ahead of you at the express queue and she has only a small basket. She reaches the cashier, and then you discover that each of her ten items is being bought for ten different people, with ten different slips and ten different sets of change.

So you take a chance and move to the queue for the disabled and pensioners – after all, there’s only one person in it, a pleasant old woman with a small number of items. All goes well – until she hauls out her bag of coupons. There is some publication which seems available only to the aged, in which there are discount coupons.

It’s 20 cents off a jar of Hellman’s Mayonnaise and 15 cents of a bar of Lux soap, 35 cents off a box of Sunlight washing powder and 10 cents off a slab of Nestle. The amounts add up. By the time you have 300 coupons, you are looking at substantial discounts. Also a substantial amount of time spent in the queue.

Now your butter is starting to get soft and the tonic water is not quite as chilled and fizzy as it was, so you look for another queue.

2] avoid queues which contain women in cheap wigs. Women in hats, scarves and snoods are also iffy.

A queue a few aisles away looks short so you pop over to join it. The woman ahead of you is wearing an unflattering wig and has at least five children. Sometimes these children are not very well behaved and you begin to wish you were a trifle deaf. Yogurt is spilled, there is shouting.

Then she begins to unpack. Many of the items are empty wrapper her children consumed while going around the shops. Maybe there is unpleasantness with the cashier. But at last her purchases are bagged and packed. Then she hauls out the credit card. Only it’s like no  credit card the cashier or I have ever seen – it’s foreign so a manager is called.

Waiting for a manager can take over five minutes and the butter is now pretty soft, so time to find another queue.

3] Keep away from anyone who looks as if he’s a messenger.

Okay, you slip behind a man wearing bright blue overalls: he carries a loaf a bread, some polony, and a carton of sour milk, there is an old plastic bag in his pocket and he is counting the correct amount in his palm. This is your kind of queue.

So he pays for his lunch, then he pulls out envelopes of telephone bills, TV licences and rates and taxes. His office has sent him off to settle their accounts for them. It is going to take at least quarter of an hour, but he doesn’t mind, it’s his job.

4] Beware of anyone shopping with a domestic labourer [i.e. maid or gardener]

A new till opens and you hurry there but are pipped to the post by a woman and her maid. That’s fine, they do not have too many items. The cashier starts putting things through – but the woman leaves. The items are rung up but she is not there to pay. You wait, and then this Madam arrives with another trolley. And later another.

The domestic is left to keep the place at the front of the line while the employer does more shopping – sometimes it is only another eight or nine items, but I have waited while three additional trolleys were filled.

5] The Express Queue is not always faster

You return to the Express Queue, wishing you’d never left: all the people who caused you to change queues have long gone, so you remind yourself once again of the folly of queue hopping, and discard the butter which is now too soft to hold.

The woman in front of you has a full trolley; you point out that the line is for ten items or less but she gives you a filthy look and says she is in a hurry. There’s a hold-up at the tills because someone has bought glassware and the cashier is having to wrap it herself [no packers in the Express Lane].

Another delay because an item is missing it’s barcode. No one there to check on the shelf so the bell is rung for a manager. There’s a five minute wait right there. Anther delay while a rural woman pays for her items using small change. She comes up short so roots around in her bra and produces a crumpled note. It’s still not enough.

So the bell gets rung again so a manager can authorise a cancelled sale. Since I’m not taking the butter I have an extra R50 and give it to the cashier to make up the total. Meanwhile I can’t help noticing that the Trolley queue an aisle across had gone through smoothly and at three times the speed of the Express.

Ideally, you want to look for a line of young, affluent girls: they will have daddy’s credit card or wodges of cash so if the price that is rung up is not the price on the shelves they are unlikely even to notice.

They are not buying for friends, do not have to worry about bills so there are no surprise waits – they are usually on a generous contract and don’t even have to buy airtime – and if they pay with cash, they use notes kept in their purses, not coins secreted in dodgy areas under the clothes. .

As for coupons – they’ve probably never heard of them. .

Queuing is not fun but it can be a lot faster.




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