Attention Pathmark Shoppers

The lines at our local Pathmark are always outrageous. The store has ten registers or so, but I’ve never seen more than two or three of them staffed at a time. The cashiers are also painfully slow. The lines consistently reach back to the aisles of groceries, creating a massive snarl at the front of the store. We typically spend most of our time at the store in line; everyone else seems just as unhappy to be there as we are. Whenever it’s an option, we drive across town to the A&P or walk over to the much smaller fruit-n-vegetable market instead.

My question is why Pathmark puts up with this. You’d think that by adding a few more cashiers they’d increase sales by far more than enough to pay for it. And yet they don’t. What gives? What kind of forces make these absurdly long lines the equilibrium result? Some hypotheses:

1) Pathmark shoppers don’t value their time very much; the impatient ones like us go somewhere else. Perhaps, but there are plenty of other people in there hopping from one foot to the other.

2) Pathmark shoppers don’t have convenient alternatives. Empirically false, particularly given that most people get there by car.

3) Pathmark shoppers don’t know about their alternatives. Seems unlikely.

4) The low prices make it worthwhile. Would be a plausible theory if the prices were low, which they are not.

5) The shoppers like the social experience; it’s about chatting with their friends who are also stuck in line. It’s true that we enjoy grocery shopping more together than alone; this one suggests we should go with a larger group of grocery buddies.

6) Incomplete contracts are breaking down in front of our eyes; the cashiers don’t particularly need these jobs, and store management knows that cracking the whip will just leave them with even fewer cashiers. This feels psychologically true, but it doesn’t square with the fact that other stores in the same shopping plaza—to say nothing of the other supermarkets in town—don’t seem to have the same issues.

7) Local failure of Pathmark management; our store is run by a bunch of incompetents. But this just pushes the question up a level: why does Pathmark tolerate this organizational pathology? So perhaps there’s a systemic management failure at Pathmark. My experience of other Pathmarks suggests that ours is not an outlier. What sort of mistake?

8) Management has given up this Pathmark for lost; it’s not worth closing but they don’t expect it to do well. If you have low expectations, prepare to have your assumptions confirmed. We need a No Pathmark Left Behind program.

9) Pathmarks everywhere are understaffed; management doesn’t know that that’s the problem. Hierarchies can be blind, yes, but this one is obvious. They must spend some time in their stores, right?

10) Pathmarks everywhere are understaffed; it’s a deliberate decision that, in time, will destroy the company. We’re not in equilibrium; we’re just watching the Invisible Hand wield the Invisible Knife as it claims its latest victim.

11) Pathmarks everywhere are understaffed, and it’s a rational overall strategy in terms of market positioning, for some combination of factors given above. This seems unlikely, but perhaps …

12) Our Pathmark is an outlier in some respect—it needs more than the usual staffing, its store management is more than usually bumbling—but fixing it would require some kind of exception to the Taylorist homogenized rationality by which the chain is run.

Other explanations welcome; I find none of these satisfying.

Having once been a Pathmark shopper myself several decades ago, in both Brooklyn and NJ, I can tell you that Pathmarks have always been poorly staffed. I have inferred that this is Pathmark’s business model: They might get more customers with more (and better-motivated and, presumably, better-paid) staff, but the increased sales wouldn’t make up for the increased labor costs. Your Pathmark may be even less adequately staffed than your average Pathmark, but if they’re not making a profit, they’re not going to stay in business.