Retail Shoppers: 3 Minutes to Check-out, Or I’m Out of Here!

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Long lines are bad for business. An especially long line at a store’s checkout area can scare off some customers from making a purchase, or just leave the shopper aggravated—and less likely to come back. Also, the longer the wait to pay, the more time the shopper has to rethink the purchase. What are stores doing to keep the lines moving, not to mention keeping shoppers in jolly enough moods to follow through on their purchases?

Three minutes. That seems to be about the length of time shoppers will contentedly put up with waiting at the checkout line. Any longer that that: Trouble.

The retail consultancy firm Envirosell, run by shopping and marketing guru Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, has conducted studies showing that when checkout lines last less than three minutes, consumers perceive the time that has passed quite accurately. But when a wait takes longer than three minutes, the shopper’s perception changes. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal:

“So if the person was actually waiting four minutes, the person said ‘I’ve been waiting five or six minutes.’ If they got to five minutes, they would say ‘I’ve been waiting 10 minutes,'” Mr. Underhill says.

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The Journal’s story details many of the strategies being employed by retailers to avoid exasperating shoppers—and risking the loss of their business—during the frantic holiday season.

Among the more curious coping mechanisms: trivia contests. During peak shopping days at Disney Stores, employees may chat up customers in line and ask who can name the first full-length Disney feature film, or some such Disney trivia.

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While that’s more of a distraction than anything, Home Depot gets down to business through the use of “line busters.” These are staffers who, whenever there are three or more people in line, start scanning items of customers before they reach the register, to speed along the checkout procedure.

While retailers like fast checkout for customers, they like it when customers make impulse buys even more. That’s why, even though stuffing the register areas with soda, candy, magazines, and other schlock slows down checkout as shoppers scope out the merchandise, this is one checkout line staple that’s not going away anytime soon.

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Old Navy’s redesigned checkout areas, in fact, are being outfitted with quirky, eye-catching merchandise like astronaut ice cream, Mad Libs, and super hero lunch boxes. The strategy will probably yield an increase in items picked up at the checkout line—a line that won’t be moving as swiftly as it could.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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