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The New York Times reports that Whole Foods’ approach to New York City supermarket lines – which is more like a bank or an airline terminal, with “serpentine single lines that feed into a passel of cash registers” – seems to work for Big Apple consumers, who find it to be faster than the traditional “one-line-per-register system.”

“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,” the Times writes. “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.”

According to the Times, “Whole Foods executives spent months drawing up designs for a new line system in New York that would be unlike anything in their suburban stores, where shoppers form one line in front of each register.

That traditional system, they determined, would take up too much space and could not handle the crowds they expected here.

The single-line, bank-style system was quickly chosen for its statistical efficiency. Then, Whole Foods paired the system with possibly the largest number of registers in the city, more than 30 per store, and it hired an army of cashiers to staff them throughout the day (including ‘floaters’ to fill in for those who need a break).

“The result is one of the fastest grocery store lines in the city. An admittedly unscientific survey by this reporter found that at peak shopping times — Sunday, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. — a line at Whole Foods checked out a person every 4.5 seconds, compared with 19.6 seconds for a line at Trader Joe’s.”

The Times notes that many NYC consumers were skeptical, but the majority seems to have been convinced that this is a good system. And even John A. Catsimatidis, owner of the Gristede’s chain, which uses the traditional line system, ells the Times: “I should give it a closer look.”
KC's View:
Based on the Times story’s comparison of the Whole Foods lines to banks and supermarkets, I fully expect that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will be issuing an edict that Whole Foods cannot, under any circumstances, acquire or merge with any airports or banks.

Airports, I suspect, won’t be a problem. But who knows if this could cramp Whole Foods’ long-term financial services plans?

This seems to fit into the “better mousetrap” category … and I like it when retailers try new things and it works.