Life in the slow lane: Why supermarkets should rethink the need for speed

Most people want to get out of the grocery store checkout line as quickly as possible,. But for some, that need for speed can cause problems and even serious distress. Is it time for a special lane for folks who can't or simply don't want to move as quickly?

Everyone could win with a lane for people with special needs or folks who just aren't in a hurry

There is all sorts of advice out there on how to get out of the grocery store faster. But what if it's all wrong? What if the best way to move faster is to let others slow down? (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Few things are more frustrating than waiting in a long line at a grocery checkout only to have the person in front of you discover when it comes time to pay that they actually need money.

And then they can't find their wallet. And then they can't decide between cash or a card. And then they remember they have a coupon. And then, well, you get the idea.

Because we've all been there, drumming our fingers, sighing in frustration, perhaps even making a snarky comment. 

There are all sorts of techniques and advice out there on how to get out of the grocery store faster.  But what if it's all wrong?  What if the best way to move faster is actually to let others slow down?

We may soon find out if that's the case, thanks to a novel idea from a supermarket in Scotland — an idea that springs from the possibility that the slow person in front of you may not in fact be inconsiderate, they might just be incapable of moving faster.

Testing it out

As the BBC first reported, a Tesco in Forres, a town about 40 kilometres east of Inverness, has instituted a "relaxed checkout" lane on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.

The pilot project was developed in partnership with Alzheimer's Scotland and is being watched closely by counterparts in Canada.

"It's a great idea," says Kathy Hickman, education manager with Alzheimer Ontario.

"Taking the time to process money and count out change or remember a PIN on a card, it can take some extra effort and focus for someone who's living with dementia," she says.

"So when you're in a line at the grocery store where you feel you're being pressured, whether that's by the person behind the cash or whether that's by other people behind in the line, it can cause the person to become anxious and less able to focus on those things and so aggravating the problem."

In Canada, about 564,000 people are living with dementia, a number that is expected to nearly double over the next 15 years. But experts say the real number is much greater because only about half of those afflicted have actually been diagnosed.

That's a huge number of people with a disability that is not always apparent to themselves or others.

And living with Alzheimer's disease is just one of any number of reasons why someone might prefer to take a relaxed lane at the grocery store.

Not everyone's in a hurry

"[We have] people with social anxiety issues, depression, autism, learning difficulties or just basically a mom with three kids who just wants to take it easy when they get to the checkout," Kerry Speed, a Tesco customer assistant (cashier) told BBC News. 

Tesco, Britain's biggest retailer, has been testing a 'relaxed checkout' lane at an outlet in Scotland. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Think about that for a second. Consider the sheer number of people who would benefit or simply prefer a less harried checkout. Those with mobility issues, busy parents struggling with bored kids, people staring at their phones, even just someone who simply wants to take their time, all might find the prospect of a slow lane appealing.

Theoretically, providing the space for all those folks to go through at their own pace also means they won't be slowing down the speed freaks grabbing a last-minute cheese plate on the way to a dinner party. 

So could we see something like this in Canada?

It would be a complete 180 from the current retail strategy focused on getting as many people through the store as quickly as possible. 

And yet, with the growth in Alzheimer's patients and the rapidly aging population in general, a slow lane may make sense. 

It becomes a selling point with a growing customer base and possibly even with people who are in a hurry, because they will know which lane to avoid.

"By designating one lane you're accommodating both of those groups and so from that perspective it's good customer service," says Hickman. 

"It certainly makes a lot of sense that if your customer population is aging, you want to find ways to continue to support and accommodate them."

Not in Canada … yet

Two major Canadian grocery chains contacted by CBC News did not seem averse to the idea. 

Metro, which also operates Food Basics stores, says it doesn't have specific plans to open a slow lane such as the one at Tesco. 

"However, we do strive to accommodate all of our customers' needs when they shop in our stores," said Metro's Mark Bernhardt. 

"We want to ensure that everyone has the best possible customer experience at Metro or Food Basics and are always open to suggestions as to how to improve upon our standards."

There was a similar response from Loblaws.

"We agree this is an interesting pilot. We're always looking for ways to make the shopping experience as easy and convenient as possible for all our customers," said Tammy Smitham, vice-president of external communication at Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart.

The slow lane at the Tesco in Forres is still just a pilot project.

Perhaps it's time to speed up more widespread adoption.


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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