DEAR MISS MANNERS: The traditional checkout process at stores and fast-food restaurants has always been a separate line for each cash register, and if you happened to end up in a slow line, that's just the way it was.
However, some places, like banks, have switched to a single "wait here for next available cashier" model. Studies have shown this is generally faster and more efficient, but when there is nothing to indicate one way or the other, what is the prevailing etiquette? Is it one line or multiple lines? Should people be allowed to straddle multiple lines?
I shop at a local pharmacy store that has two cash registers at the front, one across from the other, with a single aisle between them. Every time I have shopped here in the past, there have been two separate lines, with people standing on the left side of the aisle to wait in line for the left cashier, or the right side to wait for the cashier on the right. Today there was a college-aged man standing right in the middle of the aisle, so I politely asked him which line he was in. His reply was "The ONE line," with a tone that implied I was an idiot for asking.
There is no sign indicating "wait here for next available cashier," so is it wrong of me to assume that there were actually two separate lines, and he was wrong for trying to straddle both lines?
GENTLE READER: Designing checkout lines -- like manning cash registers and stocking shelves -- is a store responsibility. Smart managers are aware that fistfights among the clientele are likely to interfere with business, and therefore try to make such layouts unambiguous.
When ambiguity does exist, Miss Manners allows free rein to the (reasonable and well-intentioned) whims of the first person in line: Everyone behind will then have to conform, at least until a lull in business anoints a new trailblazer.
If the aisle between the two cash registers has a function -- the only way out of the store, for example -- then your college-aged man failed the tests of reasonableness and good intentions. But you would be prudent to wait until someone plows into him on the way out, and, while expressing concern over his misfortune, advance to the closer register.