When Whole Foods finally came to New York City, it was an overdue appearance and an instant hit. When the chain opened a store in Union Square, it was an obvious match between purveyor and clientele. But a note of awe must still surround the mind-boggling popularity of the Union Square location.
I stopped in last night to pick up dinner after work and was astounded by the check-out lines. The express line stretched—try and picture this—from the registers through six basic lines, down to single file past the flowers, along the length of the prepackaged foods bin, and down the salad bar to the prepared food counter, where it wrapped back past itself alongside and past the sushi bar. I got on line next to the desserts. Doing some counting to pass the time, I estimated the line to be 85 people long at a minimum, and likely north of 100 when I was able to count the feeder lines close to the register.
Think about that. A hundred people waiting to check out in the express line alone.
Whole Foods did its absolute best in planning for the crowds. The store is split into three levels, with most shopping in the basement and a large percentage of the ground floor given to checkout. Thirty-two cash registers are fully staffed, and two or more guides stand at the head of the queues, directing customers to registers as they become available. Management has expertly monitored buying patterns; during the after-work crunch, for example, 75 percent of the cashiers are processing express orders, and the number of staff guiding customers on line increases to six or more. A Manhattan pharmacy this ain’t.
Despite that, the store runs the risk of being overrun by its own success. Where can it possibly put 100 people waiting to pay? Checkout was remarkably civil and fast: I paid within 10 minutes of getting on line, and I saw no cutting or complaining. What I did see were people doing double-takes at the line and walking out of the store, and a nearly empty salad bar and prepared foods area instead of the usual happy crowds. I know I wouldn’t wait in a line that length to buy a salad and an iced tea.
I doubt Whole Foods can do much to help the situation. My guess is that the local Garden of Eden and Food Emporium will see a nice little uptick as some customers return for their quick shopping needs. Which, to me, is the best result: the more places I can go for my groceries, the better. After all, abundant selection is part of the glory of living in New York.