Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Reflections While Waiting in Line
There certainly would be no shortage of candidates for best invention of the Twentieth Century. A short list of the usual suspects would probably include the Internet, the personal computer, the microprocessor, television and penicillin. My vote, though, would go to none of the above. It would be cast for the smart line.
I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called, or if it even has a proper name, but when I describe it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s what you see at just about every bank, where you get into one line, and when you reach the head of it, go to the next available teller when the time comes.
Before smart lines were introduced, you had to size up the line at each teller window and make a snap decision as to which one you were going to commit to. It was gambling in its purest form. At least half the time, the shortest line had someone in front of you who turned out to be attempting to cash a $100K check on a Lithuanian bank. With no ID. And no comprehension of why that might be a problem.
If you drew that hand, you were essentially cooked. While you waited (and waited, and waited) for the resolution of the Lithuanian check caper, three dozen people who walked in the door after you were able to transact their business in another line and be on their way.
The smart line takes the decision away from the individual and prevents the aggravation of seeing people who came in after you did get served first, just because they made a luckier guess. That’s been replaced by a new aggravation. As banks cut back on tellers and other customer-service expenses, it’s not unusual to see only two tellers on duty.
If one of them is out of commission for half an hour with the Lithuanian check casher, all it takes is another customer of the same stripe (say a merchant bringing in $20K in small bills and coins) to tie up the other one and freeze the entire line. At least you have the comfort, cold though it may be, of knowing you’ll get through before the person ahead of you. This is what we call progress.
Waiting in line has become the curse of modern life, as businesses go out of their way to avoid spending money on human beings to deal with customers. The two post offices I frequent tend to have one or two clerks working and never call for help, even when the line is going out the door. The Safeway near my house seems to have a policy that under no circumstances is a checker to call for additional help when the lines get long.
Sometimes the business will suggest that you use an automated service, rather than waiting in line. A postal clerk suggested that once, and I took her up on it the next time I came in and saw an impossible line. I went to the vending machine in the lobby, bought $8 in stamps and paid with a $20 bill. For change, I got 12 Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, and it took nearly a month to get rid of them. Never again.
Now I patronize a locally owned grocery store that’s adequately staffed with great checkers and go to a bank that offers better teller service than the others. The post office, alas, has no competition, so I’m stuck on that one. But at least they have smart lines.