It took Summer Xia and Portia Chen nearly five minutes to get out of Trader Joe’s line with their bagels, ground chicken, coconut milk, two bags of cut-and-peeled carrots and 24 bottles of alkaline water during the grocery store’s evening rush.
Despite routinely shopping groceries here two or three times a week, Xia, an economics pre-master student at USC, said she still felt overwhelmed when she found herself standing third-to-last in a queue that stretched through the 66-feet frozen section and wrapped around the shelves of oil and sauces in the next aisle.
Xia is not the only one overwhelmed. The store’s change this fall from multiple registers to a single queue has generated complaints among the USC community, including a student-initiated online petition that was posted Tuesday and called for the return to the old system or revisions on the current model. As of Monday morning, 456 people have signed the petition that was started by Sophie Jansen.
“Ever since it started, I thought they were just doing it as a trial and will realize that people didn't like it and go back,” said Jansen, a senior majoring in business administration. “My friend timed it the other day. It was six minutes 23 seconds on Tuesday at 2:25 p.m. That's in the middle of the week in the middle of the day, and it took her almost six and a half minutes to stand through the line.”
Jansen said she understood a single-line system is theoretically faster, but in practice, it blocked the shelves and made shopping both inconvenient and unfavorable for the sake of time.
Multiple Trader Joe’s employees told Annenberg Media they could not comment on the store’s line system or on the petition.
When freshman Riley Carlin first walked in the store to look at the plants and couldn’t see the end of the line, she moved on thinking that what she was buying didn’t deserve wasting time queuing, she said. However, after several times of walking in and out of the store, she finally stayed in the line on Thursday and ended up waiting “an embarrassingly short amount of time.”
“From my perspective, I really don't care one way or another,” said Carlin, who is majoring in applied and computational mathematics. “It's just math. We have x-number of cashiers and x-number of people in line. It's gonna go relatively the same speed. My only complaint is the line is in the middle of the store so if someone wants to get a meal or something, they have to cut through a long line of kids.”
Vicky Ma, a sophomore majoring in business administration who shopped with baskets more often than carts, gave up carrying a full basket down the stretching queue and complained about the inconvenience of moving it on the ground along the step-by-step advance of the line.
“It's better if they [Trader Joe’s] change back,” Ma said. “But that's the only grocery store we have in school, so we have to accept that. Now everything just looks terrifying, especially if you are in a rush or in a hurry for class. Freshmen come in that way so they think it's a natural thing to happen. For us, it's a huge change.”
Ma also suggested adding self-check registers like Target.
As a regular shopper who frequented Trader Joe’s for lunches and groceries, Jenn de la Fuente, an Annenberg professor of public relations, said with a single queue, customers might take “fewer spur of the moment” stops by the store, as “deliberate trips” that are planned for longer wait time become the new norm. To avoid crowding, de la Fuente decides to fix her coffee replenishing trips on Tuesdays when she gets on campus at 7:30 a.m. for classes, as well as to pick an advanced spot in her schedule to purchase the “last week of class snacks” for her students instead of before the last minute.
“The fact that you have to put so much thought into what seems like a really simple errand sort of takes some of the allure out of the convenience of it being right there,” de la Fuente said. “Just like anything when there is a change, everybody gets mad about it. Eventually, people will be just like ‘well it is what it is,’ but the period of dealing with it is a ‘drag’ for everybody.”
Sriram Dasu, an associate Marshall professor of data sciences and operations, suggested that an express lane that serves customers with far fewer items would help. And it might prompt people to adjust their shopping schedules in avoidance of peak hours. However, the more fundamental problem Trader Joe’s faced is limited capacity, he said.
"A long line creates a sense of crowding, which people don’t like," said Dasu, who researches queueing system and service operations with a focus on customer psychology. "Trader Joe’s may not have sufficient space for six lines, so they may have the necessity to create one. I don't think there is much difference in waiting time between single line and multiple lines, but if everybody wants to go in a hurry, the only solution is to add more capacity."
Although the petition to return to “the previously beloved Trader Joe's” somehow started as a joke between Jansen and a friend, Jansen does hope to show Trader Joe’s the prevalent dislike among students toward the new system.
“I think a lot of the problems is store size,” Jansen said. “A lot of it is psychology and perception. You know that Target had that type of zig-zag line, so instead of crowding the whole store, I think that would help.”
Clarification: This story has been updated on Monday, October 14 to better reflect the views of Vicky Ma and Sriram Dasu.