MM#16 – What We Could Learn at the Grocery Checkout

I find the supermarket checkout the most stressful part of the whole shopping experience. Hungry and bored kids hanging off me demanding more of the as-yet-unpaid-for food (this week we had a detergent leak and a biscuit spillage at the checkout), other shoppers trying to jump the queue, the constant fear that I’ll choose the slowest line. I’m feeling clammy just writing about it.

But the end is also the most fascinating. At the moment my point of interest is how efficiently (or not) the checkout person packs our re-usable bags. I’m sure I’m a bit off the bell curve because I linger a bit before I choose which checkout to go to – I’m surveying the speed at which each operator works, and watching how well they pack the bags. Sometimes I get it horribly wrong and watch as the line next to me moves at twice the speed, and I freeze as my optimism battles it out with my urge to switch. But I’m getting better with practice.


And here’s where the learning opportunity comes in. The good operators seem to have the following qualities [you can apply this to shopping bags or planning a building]; they

  • survey the ingredients and items first, before packing;
  • lay out the bags before they start on the detail;
  • pause a little to mentally plan their game, before moving;
  • pack the bags with the utmost space efficiency – you can barely wedge in whatever my kids have half devoured let alone more items;
  • their packing is neat, to the point of being artistic – it has a 3-dimensional logic to it.

I wondered if the checkout would be a good recruiting ground for architects and planners, or indeed even for sustainability consultants. Efficient, tight and then meaningful planning and arrangement of materials is in my experience a rare skill, and it relies heavily on a good three-dimensional understanding of the brief. I review around 60 building designs every year, and sadly many of those have inefficient planning that just hasn’t been packed well. They are excessive, and in this game that means wasted materials and money.

When we can ‘pack tightly’ we achieve one of the most effective sustainability measures – we use less stuff.

So this week, put a little time into stopping before you start – ask yourself ‘how can I do this more efficiently?’, ‘how can I use less stuff to get the job done?’ Imagine that you have a constrained volume to work within and you have to be checkout-operator clever with optimising how you use it.


3 responses to “MM#16 – What We Could Learn at the Grocery Checkout

  1. Digby hilarious – i don’t like that spot either of ‘queue assessment’ and then ‘queue envy’.
    Easy answer is to get the kids to eat everything before it needs to be packed?

  2. John Stefanatos

    What happened to rapacious developers who demanded every last square metre of net lettable floor space.
    Has this gone out of fashion with their white shoes?

    They probably pushed too hard but as you state an inefficently planned building is in the short term a waste of resources and in the long term inefficient in terms of running costs.

    • John the white shoes are still out there – but the language of ‘efficient planning’ does get air time with them. The biggest challenge we have with supersizing our buildings is in Australian homes – biggest on Earth… but that’s a topic for another day ; )

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