How Do Customers Really Feel About Your Checkout Lines?

How Do Customers Really Feel About Your Checkout Lines?

As any retail shopper can tell you, checkout lines can make or break the retail experience. Even if you have a great time browsing and find everything you need, coming up against a massive or slow-moving checkout line can ruin the whole experience. Since checkout is a customers’ last impression of your store, a bad experience there can poison everything that came before, making customers less likely to return to your shop again.

What can you do to improve your checkout lines? A recent study from Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management has some interesting findings on how the way you set up your checkout lines affects employee performance and customer satisfaction.

Having one long line with several cashiers is often perceived as a fairer approach to checkout lines. This way, people don’t have to choose a checkout line, only to get stuck behind someone with a complicated purchase or return. However, the study found that when customers line up in one long line, employees tend to work more slowly. The authors theorize that when multiple cashiers are responsible for serving one line, because they are sharing the task, each cashier feels less direct responsibility for clearing the line.

In addition, a cashier who’s working rapidly to bring the line down doesn’t get as much immediate gratification as if he or she were responsible for his or her own line. Being able to see that your individual line has gone from five people to two because you’re working quickly is a lot more rewarding than seeing one big line dwindle slowly.

The researchers manipulated a range of factors in the study, including what payment system was used, how easy the line was for cashiers to see from their stations, and how fast new customers arrived in line, and found that nothing affected service speed more than having separate lines for each cashier.

How Should You Use These Findings on Your Checkout Lines?

How can you use this information to improve your own store’s checkout experience?

  • Keep an eye on the checkout area. You may have only one register open, but if a line gets over a certain length — say, more than three people — another employee should be able to pop in and open a new register. That person should then start a new line, much like a grocery store cashier.
  • Clearly indicate that you have multiple lines. Confusion arises when customers aren’t sure where to line up. Stores with single lines typically have a sign showing where the line starts; you can use signage or rope off separate lanes for different cashiers if you think it’s not clear.
  • Consider your customer base. The study authors noted that their experiments only measured how fast cashiers worked — not overall customer satisfaction in general. Although most customers prefer faster checkout, if you have a customer base that needs a lot of handholding or enjoys chitchatting with your cashiers — such as seniors — they may actually prefer slower service that is more personalized and social.
  • Provide distractions. Many stores that have one long checkout line display small impulse buys near the line. This not only sparks additional sales, but also provides distraction for customers who are waiting, so the wait doesn’t seem as long. If you need to use the one-line method — for example, you’re short on staff one day or your customers chafe at the idea of multiple lines because they don’t want to chance picking the slow one — distraction can be a smart tactic.
  • Provide separate point-of-sale stations for complex tasks. For example, returns and exchanges could be handled at a special register so they don’t slow down the other lines. Or, depending on the nature of what you sell, you can even set up an “express line” for cash-only purchases or purchases of fewer than five items.

What style of checkout works for your business? How have you noticed adjusting your checkout system helps or hurts sales?

Queue Photo via Shutterstock

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Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.

2 Reactions
  1. This is really eye opening for people who run businesses with checkout lines. I think that it is better to survey your store in particular to get a more accurate view of what your customers think about it.

  2. It is MBA class 101 to manage queue length and servers.
    But OBVIOUSLY modern retailers think long lines excite and encourage new shoppers to purchase and join the line.
    This may be correct, or it may be crazy, but it is OBVIOUSLY the governing principle at multiple large retail chains.