Friday, August 7, 2009


I’ve been to wait line heaven... it’s a Wal-Mart.

I studiously avoid shopping at Wal-Mart. I know it’s a popular spot, and that’s the problem – the more people who shop there, the longer the wait at the checkout. And I hate wait lines.

But, last month, while looking for a piece of summer camp equipment for my son, I paid my first visit to our local Wal-Mart outlet. They had the item in stock, so I prepared to brave the wait for the till. I headed for the express checkout line. There were over a dozen people in the first line. I looked around for a shorter line. But, there was only one queue for multiple cashiers. Now, that’s odd for a department store.

Whether by tradition, or based on hard statistical analysis and marketing research, various businesses manage wait lines differently; for example, grocery store lines vs. bank lines. At the bank, you form a single queue, at the front of which you look for the next available teller. At the grocery store (and most department stores), you size up individual lines, trying to judge who has the most groceries, which teller is the chattiest, and who will be paying with loose pennies dredged up from the bottom of their purse. Then, while standing in line, you kick yourself for not picking another line that seems to be zipping along. Queue-er’s remorse.

While I’ve never shopped at a grocery store that uses bank-style lines, they do exist. Check out (sorry!) this article about a Manhattan grocery store that uses queue management for a competitive advantage. Make sure to flip through the “Multi-media” sidebar that compares wait times from several local stores (measurement!), and look at some of the comments on the story. People get a little heated about waiting in line!

It’s an interesting comment that “...supermarkets, fearing a long line will scare off shoppers, have generally favored the one-line-per-register system.” Are we that easily spooked?

But, back to heaven Wal-Mart. I joined the single, snaking line and prepared for a long wait. But the line moved so fast, I barely had time to get out my phone and snap this picture:

At the front of the line is an automated system that guides the next customer to the first available cashier. A screen displays the number of the cashier and a recorded voice cues the customer.

Simple. Effective. Genius.

I didn’t need any expert knowledge of how the lines worked, nor did I fret that anyone else was getting a better deal than me. And, my experience exceeded expectations. By a long shot!

I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Wal-Mart’s system and our office’s pooled referral system. (Although I’ll stop short of using “genius” to describe it.) Patients and referring physicians don’t need to be “experts” on which of our urologists has the shortest wait time – we’re the automated system that looks after that. Everyone gets in the same queue, unless there’s a medical urgency to be seen more quickly.

In the NY Times Manhattan supermarket story, one shopper said “you’d think everyone else would catch onto this.” Hmmm. Maybe when someone turns up the heat on revamping the traditional specialist wait time system, everyone will catch on. Wal-Mart is jockeying for a marketplace advantage. What’s the incentive for docs to change the way we manage our wait lists? When someone figures out that incentive, some skeptical docs will need to see the evidence that bank-style lines trump grocery store-style lines.

To those docs, I’ll say, “Hop in the car. We’re going to Wal-Mart!”

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