Messing with Trader Joes Customers

The customers at the U-District Trader Joe’s in Seattle are an oddly-stressed bunch of students, employees, and housewives. They’re often terse, slightly confused, and more often than not extremely cranky. So I naturally like to mess with them in small controlled experiments. Here’s one of my favourites.


Go to Trader Joe’s in a mid-afternoon or other period where they’re busy, but not crush-level busy. When you’re ready to check out, look for two adjacent checkstands that both have customers currently being checked out, but have nobody else in line. Simply speaking, you’d be the first person in either line if you get in one.


Instead of getting in one of these lines, simply stand in the middle between the two. The reasoning (which is entirely logical to me) is that I can just get the next available checkstand, and then anyone who wanders in behind me can get the other one. It’s simple. It’s fair. It works well.

The Results

I did this today, when TJs was hardly busy. There were two mothers and their children checking out ahead of me, and I just placed myself between the two, content to getting whatever one was next. Then a female (and it’s always a female, for some reason) walks up and we have the following conversation:

Customer: What line are you in?

Me: I’m in neither; I wasn’t sure who was going to be done first, so I’ll just get the next one that opens up.


She doesn’t respond. I consider the conversation over and that she accepted my plan of action.

Then I hear a line told in only a way that someone who has rehearsed it many times in the past with her failed relationships.


Customer (annoyed tone of voice): Can you commit?

Me (incredulous): What?

Customer: Can you commit to a line?

Me (seeing one that was almost done by then): Okay, I pick this one.


This whole exchange is a little unsettling, and it’s happened more than once to me. I’m basically forced to choose between a few different conclusions:

  • They are unable or unwilling to stray from the queueing paradigm in favour
  • They believe that by forcing me to choose a line, I may pick the incorrect one, and thus have to wait longer to be checked out even though I was next.

The latter concerns me much more than the former, as it implies that there are people who are basically saying “rather than being fair, I have a chance of making this person pick the wrong line, and thus I’ll actually be checked out before him.” They see it as something of a 50/50 chance of getting ahead by screwing the person in front of you. Well, howdy 21st century!

One thought on “Messing with Trader Joes Customers

  1. At the register + checkout robots in the back of the north Broadway QFC, people actually form a single line and then just pick the next available checkout robot or human-operated checkstand. And nothing explodes!


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