Sunday, December 2, 2012

Investing in a Line

'Tis the season of lines. You know it's true. They can't be avoided. The worst are the traffic lines, and they started a few weeks ago where I live. Traffic on the road and lines to park. Although, maybe, those shouldn't be called lines, because it's more like sharks circling before killing a parking space.

But I'm not here to talk about traffic or trying to park when you're just trying to stop at the grocery store to pick up something for dinner. Seriously, what do those people eat the rest of the year, because they certainly aren't shopping at Safeway. Okay, forget that question; I actually know the answer to that one, which is why it violates my space to have all those people crowding my store when they're busy at <insert name of fast food establishment here> the rest of the year.

No, no... forget the lines outside of the store; let's talk about the ones inside.

I hate lines. Not because I hate the lines in-and-of themselves so much, but because I can't choose a good line to save my life. Seriously, if there were 10 lines and some guy told me to pick one but that if I picked the slowest one, I'd get shot in  the head... well, I'd have a hole in my head. Every time. Because, you know, just one hole isn't enough. Anyway... I'm not just saying this. Yeah, I know that everyone feels this way about it, that whatever line you pick is the slowest. I get that everyone feels that way, but it's just not true for you people out there. I have third party verification, and my wife pretty much won't let me pick a line for anything when she's with me.

You don't believe me, do you? Well, let me give you an example:

A couple of weeks ago, I was at said grocery store to pick up a few things. It just so happened to be kind of busy (for no good reason), and I got stuck needing to pick a line. I had four choices (because the 5th choice was the express lane, and I had more than 15 items, so that one was out), and I evaluated carefully. Three of the lines had three or more people waiting in them after the person that was being checked out; the other line only had one person waiting in it after the person that was being checked out. Okay, so I had a short line, but that's not good enough, so I looked to see who was checking in each line (remember, I shop here a lot, so I kind of know who's good and who's not). One line had a newish girl checking that I'd only seen once before, so I slid her to the end of my list because I didn't know enough about her. The next two were women I'd consider "normal" checkers, which is fine. But the short line... I couldn't see who was checking in that line. I thought it was because I just couldn't see her, so, based on what I knew, I took the short line.

A moment after I stepped into line, I discovered the reason I couldn't see the checker: she hadn't been there. But she was coming back, so it was okay, right? Well, except that I knew this was one of those kind of hyper checkers that seems busier than they are. But I was in the line... See, by stepping into the line, I'd invested in it. It was now "my line." So I stood there... and watched the checker almost immediately leave again.

What was going on?

I glanced over at the other lines, and they had gotten longer. And, soon, someone got behind me strengthening my investment in this particular line. The checker didn't come back... she didn't come back some more... and, then, she did, but she left, again!, almost immediately.

The other lines had not shortened, but I did see that in one of the lines the person I would have been behind was leaving... and I hadn't moved. Because the checker was now flitting about between her register and some other register, but, see, now I had invested time in this line, and there was someone behind me, meaning I would lose my place if I moved. The woman in front of me, the woman that was "next" looked back at me with a look that reflected how I felt, and I thought, "screw this," and I got out of line and stepped down to the new girl's line. Her line was moving at least twice as fast as the next fastest line.

Here's the thing: I'm not usually willing to change lines. I'm more the kind to pick my line and stay with it no matter what. It's my line, darn it, and I'm keeping it! No matter how slow it is. I mean, theoretically, it all evens out, right? Sometimes you get a slow one, sometimes a fast one... but not in my case. I always get the slow one, and I always stay with it to the end. But not that time... That time I decided to change lines.

I got into my new line, and it wasn't long before someone got behind me. I turned and looked, and it was the woman that had been in front of me in the other line. We kind of laughed, and, then, she started talking about how that checker kept leaving, and it sounded like that woman had been in the line about twice as long as I had been before I left it, but it took me being willing to move to another line for her to also switch. She had been even more invested in it than me.

The newish girl was fast. When I was walking out of the store, that other checker still wasn't back at her register. I'm not sure what was going on there, but that same person was still standing there with her stuff half way checked out, and the person that had been behind me had moved up to "next." I suppose he thought he was getting a good deal when both people in front of him moved, but he should have seen it as a lesson.

Anyway... Sometimes, we get invested in things that are not good for us or aren't going anywhere. Those things can often be difficult to see. I mean, you never know when a line might start moving, and, the longer you spend in it, the more you don't want to give up your spot to go get at the end of some other line. I get that. Like I said, I'm the guy that will tough out the slow line again and again because I'm already in it. But this experience with switching lines gave me a slightly different perspective on  things. I think perseverance is good. I mean, I think it's great. We all need to have it, especially in the writing business. Stick it out. Often, it's just the person willing to stick it out that makes it. So I'm  not saying you should become one of those wacky people that switches lines all the time trying to work out which is the fastest.

No, I'm not saying that at all. What I am saying, though, is, once you have picked your line, don't close off the possibility to trying other things. Keep your eyes open. Continue to evaluate the situation. If you see something that looks like a better opportunity, don't let your investment in a particular line stop you from taking or, at least, exploring the other option. Don't think that you can't switch to a faster line.

Of course, my usual experience with that is that the new line stops moving after I switch, but, I guess, that's the kind of risk you have to be willing to take. Evidently, sometimes, it pays off.

[Update: Just this past Saturday, I had to pop down to Safeway. I picked a good line with a good checker. I got up to "next," the a new checker came and took over checking for the person in front of me. A not good checker. I groaned on the inside, but I stayed where I was. I was "next," but, more than that, I had all my stuff on the counter already, and there was a line of people behind me. I watched four people in the next line get checked out before I got my turn in my line. See, I just can't pick lines.]


  1. I can't pick lines either. Works better if my wife is with me - she goes and stand in another line and whoever gets to the front first is the line we use. Yeah, I'm sure that makes some people grumble.
    And as for traffic lanes, I have no problem lane hopping!

  2. This time of year I really think I should do all my grocery shopping at 2am. Though there'd still probably be lines from all those smart buggers thinking they'll outsmart everyone else.

  3. I am the king of picking lines, but maybe that's because my mom has worked at Safeway for almost 20 years and I've picked up a lot of tips from her. The cashiers I always look out for (and avoid) are the chatty ones. I've seen people with 1 item take 10 minutes to check out because the cashier just HAS to know how their sister's neighbor's dry cleaner is doing now and if his son went to college or not.

  4. I love my checkers. I'm not a fan of the whole self check thing where you bag your own groceries and have to do all the work yourself. But those lines tend to be shorter.

  5. I had to laugh at this. I'm always scoping out the talent behind the cash register to see if they are the efficient checker, the gabby checker, or the type who likes to look like she's super busy, but really isn't doing anything checker. I always end up in the slow lane, and when I don't it is such a miracle it improves my whole day. :D

  6. Alex: I can't get my wife to do that. Most of the time, she won't even pick a line; she'd rather laugh at my poor skills!

    PT: I used to do that. Back when the kids were tiny, and I didn't have any other time to make it to the store.

    ABftS: Man, I hate being behind those. I mean, can't you see there are more people here and you're just standing there talking? sheesh!

    Michael: I use the self check when I only have a few things, but those lines aren't always that much shorter.

    L.G.: Glad I could give you a good laugh :)

  7. I share your line-picking pain. This one looks good because the woman is practically throwing her items through the checkout, but then she has no idea how to pay and spends ten minutes arguing with the cashier. And every second that passes by compounds my stupidity in having chosen that line, but I'm too proud to admit my error and find a new one.

    Freaking lines, man.

  8. I'm pretty bad at it too. I'll not just count the number of people in the lines, but try to eyeball the number of items I see in the carts too before I make my decision. It doesn't matter. I'll end up being in the slow one anyway. I try to tell myself that it is just cognitive bias - that I just forget all the times I'm in a fast line, and focus on the times it's slow - but it REALLY seems like I always end up in the slow line.

    It only gets worse this time of year.

  9. The quicker I can get into any place and get back out- the better! I also limit purchases to get me through any express lane! :)

  10. Jeanne: Oh, man, I hate when people want to pay in weird ways! Talking about bringing a line to a stop.

    Rusty: I used to try to tell myself that, too, until my wife started pointing out how much I suck at picking lines.

    G_G: Do you go in and out a bunch to keep the individual purchases smaller? :P

  11. Yup, this is why I prefer to go to Trader Joe's (they are FAST with the lines and open new ones if the current lines get too long) and if I can't get out there, I go to the Safeway or Giant that has the self-check or the hand-held checkers where you check everything as you put it in your cart and just pay at the self-pay on the way out. I have NO PATIENCE for lines. (I also don't like the way nobody knows how to bag things anymore. I should NOT have to tell the bagger to bag the raw meat separately from the deli meat. Lord, I sound old.)

    I love this line: "sharks circling before killing a parking space"

    I will think about that and laugh next time I'm in a circling line!

  12. Callie: Oh, I shop at TJ's, too; they just don't have everything we need.
    And raw meat shouldn't be bagged with -anything- else. I can't believe I have to tell those guys that -every- time. You think it's bad with deli meat; I have guys sticking produce in with the raw meat. What the heck?

  13. Yeah... I worked at Kroger for a summer as a cashier & had to go through bagging training. They were ON us about the raw meat. (Which I already knew anyway because my mother is OCD about food contamination.) I don't know why no other baggers EVER seem to know this.

    Also, I was just in a parking-lot circling line and laughing about the cars "killing" the parking spaces.

  14. Callie: The meat thing seems to just be common sense to me, which is what makes it hard for me to understand.

    Did you "kill" yourself a space?

  15. Hahaha, no I drove around to the street behind, where there were empty parallel parking spaces as far as the eye could see...