I live in Vienna, Austria. Here, the idea of a first-come-first-served supermarket queueing model, to which I’ve abided by adherently from my upbringing in the United Kingdom, does not appear to exist in any form. While I do carry some small, non-petty grievances with the supermarket queue structures of my homeland, I feel we do have some of the most equal and agreeable methods, my favourite of which is most often demonstrated in clothing shops.
Within this system, there is one single queue from where, once reaching the front, you are then called to individually numbered checkouts once one of numerous cashiers have become available. Instead, in the Austrian ‘system’, if we can call it that, in their many smaller supermarkets (on the mainland, for those not fully acquainted, there are far fewer large superstores, and instead comparatively more smaller ‘local’ style stores), there is usually one permanent member of staff waiting at one of the two or three checkouts. That is until, inevitably, the queue builds up, at which point one of two likely scenarios play themselves out:
In the first, the store employee assigned to the first checkout notices the buildup of shoppers (I believe the the management’s target is to open another checkout once the number of waiting customers reaches 5, which I find an acceptable number, though it often drifts into the region of around 7 or 8, which I also consider acceptable given the repetitive and unconscious nature of their work), at which point they then press, what I assume, is a button beneath their cashier’s desk, triggering a series of bell chimes followed by a pre-recorded message, stating in German, ‘Liebe Kunden, wir öffnen Kasse drei für sie’, which translates to, ‘Dear customers, we’re opening checkout three for you’.
Following this, the long queue non-verbally and democratically divides itself into two, most often meaning that customer number 4 of, let’s say, 7, then becomes customer number 1 of this newly opened checkout. That in itself I deem to be somewhat unacceptable, considering the three customers who have accepted their lot and continue to wait patiently to be served at the first checkout, I would expect, around 30 seconds to 2 minutes longer than customer number 4 (now customer number 1), and their promoted subsequent counterparts.
However, this paradigm I still deem wholly more acceptable than that of the second most common model.
Here, let’s return to the originally described setting of 7 customers waiting patiently at checkout number 1, quietly willing, but not necessarily forcing the busy employee’s hand to open a second checkout, instead trusting in good faith that they will at some point notice and act upon the somewhat increasingly restless crowd of shoppers. From here, what often plays out, is that customer number 8 arrives into the fray with their shopping, and is apparently, though understandably not thrilled by the long wait they may well have to endure should the single queue remain. They then, in German, forcefully demand ‘second checkout, please’, and depending on the time of day and availability of colleagues, checkout cashier number 1 will immediately bow to this new player’s demands, and press the button, summoning a further member of staff to the newly blinking checkout.
Now, this may all seem understandable and somewhat commendable in fact, but a high percentage of the time, customer number 8 deems their assertiveness as an unspoken right to skip the queue entirely, and swiftly take their place as customer number 1 in this newly formed line. Sometimes even, they will walk straight and presumptively past the first line to the second, still closed checkout before making their request, making it unacceptably clear that their shopping items are of a higher priority than that of their fellow customers, who now face a difficult decision as to whether or not to suck up their pride and remain in their line, or break with the first-come-first-served system entirely and delve into the dystopian depths of every shopper for themselves.
Ordinarily, I humbly take the stance of remaining in whichever queue I was originally elected to, due to the concerns of unmitigated chaos I’ve already shared with you. However, dear reader, on one occasion, in an example of what I find the more organic scenario #1, when I was approximately customer number 5, it was announced that the second checkout would be opened. However, none of my fellow customers seemed inclined to move, comfortably proud of their place at the first checkout, where their items already lay. And as I looked behind me, while there were indeed a handful of customers approaching, they didn’t appear to be in any kind of rush, seemingly willing to allow matters to pass in the order that they were numerically laid out. So, I somewhat nervously stepped out from the first queue with my basket, wondering whether this would be the first of many occasions where I may be the one to accept a very acute additional increment of time to my day, and waited subserviently at checkout number 2, with its blinking green sign.
I continued to wait, watching customers 1, 2, 3 and 4 from the first queue slowly, but surely progress with their shopping items, and began to note that there was no sign of the aforementioned promised colleague. This began to raise questions about whether this was the more prudent move I could have made, but I intended to remain in my position, where now a small number of equally silently questioning customers had begun to gather behind me. I felt in their gaze that I was somewhat responsible for their predicament, given that I’d led the diversion away from the original line, which continued to steadily move, but I hastened to remain impassive and put my faith in the store’s chosen system.
By now, both queues had around 7 customers, which appeared to put pressure on the shop’s administration, for lo and behold, from the aisle that includes chips and nuts (which I rarely partake in), a member of staff I’ve occasionally had polite rapport with began to walk steadily towards the checkouts. I gave a small inward smile, as I came quietly to the conclusion, that despite the potential pitfalls I faced, I’d still potentially attained a few extra seconds to my day, and hadn’t entirely lost faith in the egalitarian nature of my new home. But before I could settle acceptably into that notion, I watched the aforementioned colleague make a small but significant diversion and sit down at the wheely chair of checkout number 3, where they began to operate the motorised conveyor belt and scan the first of many items. I was quite naturally perturbed, as I watched every customer stood behind me, and several from the line of checkout number 1 rush to be first among this sudden free for all of shoppers.
Realising I now had the choice of being either customer number 7 of checkout number 1, or customer number 6 in checkout number 3, I stood in quiet contemplation for a few moments, before sucking up my pride, gathering my shopping items, and taking my place at the rear of checkout number 1. There I stood in both silent acceptance, and noiseless protest of the systems around me that it seems I may never fully understand.