Using math to pick the fastest line at the supermarket

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The New York Times has an interesting piece on how to pick the fastest line at the supermarket – and it might be different than what you think!

You dash into the supermarket for a few necessities. You figure it will be 10 minutes — tops — before you are done and on your way home.

Then you get to the checkout lanes and they are brimming with shoppers. Your plan for a quick exit begins to evaporate.

But all is not lost.

For anyone who has ever had to stand in line (or if you are a New Yorker, you stand on line) at a supermarket, retailer, bank or anywhere else, here are some tips from experts for picking the line that will move the fastest.

Get behind a shopper who has a full cart

That may seem counterintuitive, but data tell a different story, said Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher who is the chief academic officer at Desmos, where he explores the future of math, technology and learning.

“Every person requires a fixed amount of time to say hello, pay, say goodbye and clear out of the lane,” he said in an email. His research found all of that takes an average of 41 seconds per person and items to be rung up take about three seconds each.

That means getting in line with numerous people who have fewer things can be a poor choice.

Think of it this way: One person with 100 items to be rung up will take an average of almost six minutes to process. If you get in a line with four people who each have 20 items, it will take an average of nearly seven minutes.

Those minutes add up. Richard Larson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is considered the foremost expert on queues, estimated that Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in lines.

Read more.


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