Checkout Time Limit Around Four Minutes

Discussion
Jul 08, 2008
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

A survey from M/A/R/C Research found that four out of five shoppers are satisfied with wait times at stores in most cases. But it also found that 10 percent were exasperated enough to leave a checkout line if the wait becomes too lengthy.

The online survey of 13,000 customers conducted in April found that customers are satisfied (79 percent extremely/very satisfied) with an average wait time of about four minutes or less. The only exception is for club stores, where an average wait time slightly over four minutes was deemed still acceptable by those surveyed. After four minutes, the satisfaction levels drop considerably across seven other channels: grocery, consumer electronics, department, drug, home improvement, mass merchandisers, and office supply stores.

Among these channels, satisfaction levels are lowest for club stores and mass merchandisers because their wait times are well above the four-minute threshold. Among retailers, Lowe’s, Publix, Best Buy, Target, Longs Drugs, Staples, B.J.’s Wholesale Club, and Kohl’s received the highest satisfaction ratings in their respective categories for the checkout times.

According to the study, 43 percent of consumers said long lines would affect
their decision to shop a particular retailer in the future. Out of those consumers:

  • 21
    percent said they would avoid the store if they knew the checkout lines would
    be long at the time;
  • 19 percent said they would only go to the store to pick
    up specific items they couldn’t find at other stores;
  • Three percent said they
    would stop going to the store all together.

M/A/R/C Research said checkout time plays a key role in conversion rate, which averaged 75 percent across channels for April 2008.

“Retailers really have to focus on keeping their wait times under 4 minutes with the negative impact of even one minute more,” said Tony Amador, senior vice president at M/A/R/C Research, in a press release.

The overall results were similar to a M/A/R/C Research survey conducted in April 2007.

Discussion Questions: Have checkout times become an even more important component of the shopping experience? Are retailers generally putting enough emphasis behind reducing checkout times? What are some of the best strategies to do so?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

27 Comments on "Checkout Time Limit Around Four Minutes"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
John McNamara
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Maybe the “average” customer will wait 4 minutes but plenty others won’t.

What I find most remarkable is that during these peak times, retailers with multiple registers at their disposal rarely open more than 50% of them.

Self checkout can definitely ease congestion but only if done right. This means being user-friendly, clean and functional. Although it isn’t rocket science, customers need to be educated to best exploit the self checkout system.

The alternative is the checkout of Aldi Germany. Their staff might lack friendliness and charm but nobody rings up a bill faster. They are so quick that the onus is put back on the customer to hurry up and pay so as not to delay the customers behind them. Thereby Aldi avoids being the bad guy because they cannot be blamed for any wait.

Evan Schuman
Guest
Evan Schuman
11 years 4 months ago
Interestingly enough, self-checkout systems may play a small role in reducing impatience. After all, consumers often have the choice of going to a shorter line if they want to scan and bag themselves. (It helps to get a kid to eat their green beans if a plate of overcooked brussel sprouts is lurking nearby.) To address the main question, there’s another balancing act involved here. The faster cashiers are pushed to move, the easier it is to get fraud past them. So there is a strong loss prevention element to also be considered. In Europe, many chains are trying to split the payment from the scan and bag segments of the checkout process, potentially accelerating the entire process. Fujitsu’s rollout last week of their U-Scan system is adopting a similar tactic. This gets us into a philosophical question. Will that approach truly be faster or will it simply feel faster? I typically swipe my card when the final groceries are being scanned, during the bagging process, theoretically eliminating any significant time savings from splitting the… Read more »
David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Checkout times are an integral part of the overall impression formulated by consumers about any given retail chain. If consumers wait in line too long, they start to develop resentment for their personal time being wasted while they wait to pay their money. Self help check out equipment has helped significantly and retailers overall seem to be doing a much improved job to make the check out experience more palatable.

Raymond D. Jones
Guest
Raymond D. Jones
11 years 4 months ago
Wait time is an important aspect of the total customer experience in the store. A pleasant shopping trip can easily be undone by an extended wait time or poor service at the checkout. While it is certainly valuable to ask shoppers what they would do or how they would react to situations, it is far more useful to observe behavior or ask these questions in the context of an actual shopping trip. Internet surveys may provide a sense of this, but it is really necessary to do in-store observations and interviews. As part of our Front-End Focus initiative, Dechert-Hampe has conducted thousands of observations and interviews at the checkout. Front-End Focus is a program sponsored by Mars, Wrigley, Time-Warner, and Coca-Cola in partnership with a number of leading retailers. In our research, we have looked at issues such as wait time, transaction time, and total customer satisfaction. We have found that retailers can substantially mitigate the negative impact of wait time by providing customers something to do or look at in line. The value of… Read more »
Charlie Moro
Guest
Charlie Moro
11 years 4 months ago

Not only are we pressed for time in general (real or unreal), the wait time seems to be addressed by friendly cashiers who can engage on even a base level to make the final connection to the customer.

The real frustration with wait time for me seems to be with self checkout, where customers who are at best “technology challenged” slow and stop a line with no help in sight. Home Depot is a good example of this where, in some cases, there are no registers open other than self checkout and the customers are struggling to figure out how to scan a bag of concrete.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Wait times haven’t just become an issue; they have been an issue for a long time. That’s one of the reasons some retailers have installed self-checkout lanes and/or begun using wireless checkout devices and/or have the policy that when three people are in line someone calls for another cashier to come up and/or publicize the fact that between 4 and 7 p.m. all lanes will be open.

The issue isn’t new and it hasn’t gone away. Consumers don’t like to wait when checking out.

Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 4 months ago
I’m not sure that retailers are measuring these times, and even if so, if they are measuring them accurately. Certainly, they can be measured by system-generated data. However, this data never really tells the real story. I participated several times in many manual studies. And from my view, this is the only way it can accurately be done. It takes a trained observer. More importantly, someone talented enough to run a stop watch and who is thoroughly impartial. What can be learned is extremely interesting. The tales told are even more helpful in customer service itself. The most interesting I’ve seen was one that was done prior to installation of self-checkout, during the installation and then later weeks following the installation. It showed what is rarely discussed about self-checkout–which is an improvement in wait times and an overall improvement in the perception of customer service. Certainly, most see this change as merely a labor savings investment. However, done right, it returns high improvements in number of customers on line in lanes open and an impressive… Read more »
Steve Bramhall
Guest
Steve Bramhall
11 years 4 months ago

Self scan with random checking. Technology will get better and less expensive too, so there will be less need for random checking.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
11 years 4 months ago

Absolutely; checkout times and customer service has become more important. We have evolved into a NOW society. We want it, when we want it and how we want it. The average time someone will wait in line is three persons. If the wait is longer, you will see the droppings of product or leaving of full carts and they will just walk out. Happens all the time.

Retailers should have a “sentinel;” someone that is assigned to keep an eye out for customer service. The best of the best, when they are ready to open a new line will go very discreetly to the next in line and say “I’ll take you with no wait on aisle ‘?'” instead of just opening a new checkout line and someone just walking up gets in the line after others have waited for 15 minutes. Fights have almost started on such matters.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

We have been saying for years the consumer is time starved. Waiting in line to check out is viewed as a waste of time by most consumers. The problem is, just saying a 4 minute wait time is the breaking point is the wrong way to look at the issue. A four minute wait for an express line of 7 items or less is simply unacceptable to most consumers. A four minute wait for an consumer buying $200 worth of groceries is a different story.

Dan Raftery
Guest
11 years 4 months ago
Checkout wait time has always been the cornerstone of a retailer’s service definition. This is not new and it applies to every form of retail. Customers can be offended, frustrated or almost delighted with the exchange. It all depends on how the retailer designs the service point and then uses the resources available. Customers will be tolerant of wait times longer than 4 minutes if all lanes are open and the staff are functioning well (i.e., not chatting with each other). I’ve seen plenty of jammed front ends that are tolerable because the personnel are pleasant. Shoppers can tell when employees are working hard to “get them out.” However, I’ve also seen plenty anxiety in the lines. Crabbiness begets crabbiness. Why would a shopper return to a store that made him/her feel bad about being there? Smart retailers recognize that the POS is a place of discomfort by definition (“pay up and get out”). They do what they can to make it less so.
Dan Nelson
Guest
Dan Nelson
11 years 4 months ago
Checkout times have always been a very important element of the shopping experience and will continue to be! This is the last impact of the experience you offer to the customer, and making it as convenient and pleasant as possible helps to build shopper loyalty. Unfortunately, too many retailers miss this opportunity and the customer leaves with a less than satisfying last impression of their shopping trip. What can you do to enhance the checkout of the shopper’s trip? Retailtainment is one way to do so. How about overhead TVs that show CNN latest news flashes and soundbites? How about front end music that is directed only to check out lines? What about store managers walking the check out lines to thank shoppers for their patronage? How about re-vamping the checkout areas to be less cluttered with impulse stuff? Maybe offering samples to shoppers in the checkout on things like hot cocoa on a cold day, or something refreshing if it is hot outside. Focus on making this last 20 feet in the store as… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Starbucks was the first to realize that wait times equal lost revenue. Hence their seeming one-on-every-corner approach. Since the economy has illuminated not all of their locations are profitable, they will have to scale back without raising customers’ wait times.

Now that a four minute wait has been deemed long enough, will retail management have the foresight to increase staff to ensure it doesn’t happen? Doubtful, but many will push for more self-service–which could actually increase the wait time with people unfamiliar with the technology.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

The irony in retailing is the longer you keep the customer in the store the more they buy. And the quicker you get them out of the store, the quicker they return.

Having said this and reading the other comments, I think the one missing item is managing the shopper’s expectations. True, the 4 minute standard may have real relevance. However, other cues have value in the “frustration equation.” For example, shoppers are more lenient of the temporal dimension if every check-out is open and if there are dedicated baggers at each checkout. Also, when the cashier makes a mistake, what is the process for fixing it? It should be seamless, not making customers pay for our mistakes.

Time is money, so we should manage expectations accordingly.

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
11 years 4 months ago

Two chains come to mind that are at opposite ends of this spectrum: Meijer and Costco. For some reason Meijer has the slowest checkouts in the world. They have a lot of lanes open usually but they move at a snail’s pace and it is extremely frustrating. Even though I have tried to remind myself that their prices are good and so is the selection, the checkout totally ruins it for me. Costco on the other hand is very aware of checkout times and is always working hard to manage it. They open more lanes, they help people unload their carts, they have people scanning with mobile scanners and their checkers are fast and courteous. I shop at Coscto regularly and seldom at Meijer for these reasons.

Neil Carver
Guest
Neil Carver
11 years 4 months ago

It isn’t the wait time, it is the visibility of progress. If customers see the line is moving and employees are responding, they are fine. If they see one haggard employee trying to deal with a customer who is returning six things on five different receipts, and there is no one else coming to help…then you’ve lost them.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
11 years 4 months ago
What ever is scarce has value and time is one of the scarcest commodities out there for most people. What scares me about this study is that retailers will read it and say okay, people are willing to wait up to 4 minutes so that will be the metrics I will live by. I want to shop at the store that says “if 4 minutes in the breaking point, I want to be well below that. So if I set my limit to 3 minutes I am going to be at least 25% better then my competition.” There are two things that have been missed in the comments. One is, through the use of technology and scheduling software, companies are better able to make sure that they have the staff they need at the times they need them. Two, if you are going to keep people in line, give them something to do or something to distract them. When you have to wait in line at Disney, they have TVs to distract you and make… Read more »
Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

OK, everyone here has done a great job of dissecting this “4-minute wait time” conundrum.

Setting aside the self-checkout option for a moment, does it really matter if you wait 30 seconds or 5 minutes to reach the front of the line only to be confronted by a disengaged, ill-informed and poorly mannered cashier? A great shopping experience in the store always comes to a crashing halt when cashiers aren’t on the same page. Retailers can open all the check out lanes they want to speed up check out times, but until they do a better job training the true brand ambassadors (the cashiers) it probably won’t help a single bit.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Long wait times are acceptable when customers have found exciting merchandise, or when there are no reasonable alternatives to the store. But the rise of the Internet, and the sharp increase in the number of retail stores, frees customers to purchase wherever they want. If their local store cannot serve them quickly, they’ll leave.

Petroleum companies insist on sub-second approval time on credit card transactions, because they know that customers will drive away if approval takes too long. Retailers will be investing more effort in making the customer experience more satisfactory.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
11 years 4 months ago

Absolutely. I barely have time to write this response and do all of the other things I need to do in a day. If I know that I’m headed into a store that can’t control wait times, chances are they’re not getting my time or money. However, it’s not only about time. It’s also about experience. If I can get in and out quickly as well as have some back up service to avoid scanner problems and to answer real-life human to human questions, then the time/value equation kicks in and a few more seconds won’t feel like an eternity.

Jerome Schindler
Guest
11 years 4 months ago
1. I do not expect to have to use self checkout to speed my exit from the store. Also, lines are long there as well. 2. When a store has 8 checkouts and only 5 are working at peak times with long lines and few baggers, I get the message that they do not respect me. 3. Additional delays are caused by such things as checker having to go somewhere to get cigarettes for the customer, pricing errors, credit card/check rejections, need to call someone of legal age to scan alcoholic beverages, etc. This is an operations problem as most need to be handled by a “supervisor” and one is seldom close at hand. 4. The lines at the Customer Service Counter are so long that I call it the “Disservice Counter.” All of the above describe the Kroger where I shop. Why do I go back? Because it is the only conveniently located supermarket. They will only wake up when some competition arrives. I find I am more often traveling another 4 miles to… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

I’ll agree with Aldi being fast. Aldi checkouts are so fast that it is usually the customer that slows things down. Aldi typically staffs their stores with well trained employees who are over-productive.

Long wait times are direct reflection of how well the overall store is run and a symptom of a bigger problem. The best strategy is to simply put well trained employees at the checkouts. The checkout is not the place to put your worst employees. Good retailers do put a strong emphasis on fast checkouts. I don’t think I have ever heard of a retail chain known for fast checkouts that went out of business.

Justin Time
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

That’s why I like the self scan options always available in Great A&P supermarkets.

I can check out quickly by checking myself out.

And I always get a friendly “Welcome” greeting from Ann Page.

Who can beat that?

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 4 months ago

Checkout times, and convenience in general, are a key point of differentiation for many mass retailers, second only to pricing. Self-checkout lines can make a big difference, but not every customer is ready to utilize them.

Speed and ease through checkout are a great indicator of a retailer’s attitude toward customers. Those retailers that excel at getting their customers quickly through checkout usually excel at other customer service metrics, and are leaders in their category.

Mark Lilien
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Four minutes probably isn’t reasonable. I suspect that many shoppers will accept no more than X number of people in front of them (2? 3?). The key is staffing and scheduling to meet the traffic flow. Retailers who use good scheduling software do this more easily than retailers who schedule using Post-its. Excellent example of scheduling incompetence: my local post office is only busy weekdays from noon to 1:30. Guess when the cashiers take their lunch breaks?

Tom Krause
Guest
Tom Krause
11 years 4 months ago

When you combine actual wait times (measured by mystery shops) with perceived wait times (measured with customer surveys), it’s clear that consumers think they are waiting longer than they actually are. This fits nicely with many of the comments here about the importance of managing the perceptions of customers while waiting in line. In a recent study and subsequent white paper, Maritz Research found that simple actions by sales associates (like greeting, smiling and offering an apology for the long wait) can diffuse a frustrating situation as well as, or better than, operational changes can (like adding TVs and other distractions near the queue). It is also important to consider the negative impact long wait times have on employees.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
11 years 4 months ago

Yes, convenience and speed at checkout are essential. And a friendly “thank you” or short conversation from a cashier goes a long way as well to create a positive shopping experience. Speed at checkout leaves a lasting impression, either good or bad.

Innovative retailers are the ones which display a sense of urgency at the registers and open more checkouts as they are needed. Companies like Trader Joe’s even ring a bell which shows consumers the company is responding to their needs. It’s actually kind of fun to hear. I think more retailers need to show this type of response as a sense of urgency seems often lacking and as if no one cares how long the customer waits.

wpDiscuz

Take Our Instant Poll

How much more important have quick checkout lines become over the last decade?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...