My Ideal Grocery Store

Pretty much every time I go grocery shopping, I have the same fantasy about how I would design my perfect grocery store.

It’s more or less the same as any grocery store until you get to the checkout lanes. There are ten of them, all in a row. The first five are “normal.” The sixth one costs an extra 2% surcharge to use. The seventh is 4%, the eighth is 6%, the ninth is 8%, and the tenth is 10%. If you use that tenth checkout lane, you have to pay 10% more for everything you buy.

The lanes are otherwise identical. There’s no additional benefit for using any of the lanes, not even the last one.

Before I explain why this would be WAY better than the current way grocery stores are set up, take a minute to think about it and see if you can guess. Why would this configuration be good? Why would you pay 10% more for your groceries for no reason?

Okay, I’ll tell you why:

Because each line past the first 5 would be shorter and shorter. The tenth one would usually be deserted. You’d be paying more for a shorter line.

Forget “express lanes,” they don’t work. Because there’s no real way to enforce them beyond social norms which don’t hold up well in big grocery stores. But if you only had one 8-dollar item and you were in a hurry? Paying 80 cents to get out fast and skip the line seems like a great deal!

If there were long lines, you’d be able to customize your experience. Imagine you approach the checkout area and it’s a crowded day. The first five lines are pretty full; let’s say an average of 8 people each with varying amounts of stuff. Ugh. So you look at Line 6, with its minor 2% surcharge. Well, 2% is minor enough that a few people have picked that line, but it’s only 6 people and on average they have smaller cart loads. Still not short enough for you, so you look at Line 7 with the 4% surcharge. Now there are only 4 people in this line with even smaller carts, so you step in line. Someone else wants to get out even quicker, so they go to Line 8 which has nobody in it; they’re willing to pay 6% to skip the line entirely. You could have done that, but you were willing to save 2% by waiting a little, just not a lot.

There’s no reason to even look at lines 9 & 10 of course, if 8 is empty. But the busier the day, the more those lines will fill. It’s like built-in surge pricing – which in turn encourages people to spread out their shopping a little more, lowering congestion.

Now, despite how amazing this grocery store would be in theory, it has one critical problem – people would riot. Most people, in my experience, aren’t great at seeing when a whole system benefits them unless every individual part also benefits them in obvious ways. Many people would see a system like this and complain that either wealthier people would be able to shop faster, or that it isn’t “fair” to charge them more just to use an unoccupied line. They wouldn’t necessarily grasp the deeper concept that people paying extra to shop in a different line benefits you directly, because now that person isn’t in front of you in your line, so they’ve actually paid to make both your waits shorter. They also might not grasp that even having the option to “pay extra for an unoccupied line” is only possible because the line costs extra to use; if it didn’t, everyone would use every available line and there’d be no way for people in a legitimate rush to move ahead.

And I’ll defend that phrase: “legitimate rush.” Yes, everyone is in a hurry. Everyone has limited time, and no one wants to spend more of it than they have to in the grocery store. But there are absolutely some rushes that are more important than others – but I can’t judge them! I can 100% maintain that some people have a more valid reason to hurry than others without being willing to pass my own judgement on those reasons. Instead, I’d like to see a system where everyone could weight their own rushes according to their own opportunity costs. This system allows that.

(Side note: if you have a business that sells anything that takes time to produce, have a rush fee. That way, instead of endless back-and-forth with customers wanting things yesterday, you can just say, “Sure, for a 50% upcharge you can have it in half the time.” See how many people suddenly don’t really need it tomorrow, like they initially said.)

On a macro level, independent stores already do this. You pay a little more at Target so you don’t have to go to Walmart. The goods are more or less the same, but fewer people overall shop at Target and so the lines are usually shorter on average. It’s just that no store practices this internally. I’d love to see one try – I’d shop there every time.

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