Using What You Learned in School

Many (OK, some) of us here are former (or current) Computer Science majors. This likely means that, at some point, we studied Queueing Theory, which is the study of waiting lines. It is applicable to lots of things in real life, but for us CS majors, it had to do with servicing requests in operating systems.

Here’s a real life example. Different stores use different models. Go into your typical grocery store or WallyWorld, and you’ll see multiple queues with multiple servers. You have to pick just right here: get a fast server and a short queue, and you’re in great! Choose wrong, and you’re there forever. Other stores use other models: for example, Best Buy uses a single queue, multiple server model. Most department stores have multiple queues scattered around the store, which often leaves servers idle.

The New York Times is reporting today how Whole Foods in New York is introducing the single queue, multiple server model to the grocery store. Quoting from the article:

By 7 p.m. on a weeknight, the lines at each of the four Whole Foods stores in Manhattan can be 50 deep, but they zip along faster than most lines with 10 shoppers.

Because people stand in the same line, waiting for a register to become available, there are no “slow” lines, delayed by a coupon-counting customer or languid cashier. And since Whole Foods charges premium prices for its organic fare, it can afford to staff dozens of registers, making the line move even faster.

This is significant: Since arriving in 2001, Whole Foods stores in Manhattan have won bragging rights as the top sellers among grocery chains here, with sales of $42 million per store last year. It has impressed Trader Joes.

I wonder how long until we start seeing it at markets in California.

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