I found this in the pocket of my jeans before they went into the laundry hamper:
If you've gone to the supermarket you know just what that is -- a take-a-number ticket from the deli counter. And you know how it works. You pull a number from the little dispenser, look up at the tote board on the wall behind the deli workers, die a little inside, wonder if you can get everything else on your list before they get to your number, and just wait in place, beaming hate rays from your eyes at all the people before you, especially the old lady who is catering a wedding and has to get some of everything in quarter- to half-pound increments (and try a slice of each before she orders it).
The Hubert company, one of many outfits that make these things including the ticket above, refers to these as "call systems" or "crowd control."
I got there early, so I was 6. Sometimes you get there late and you're 6, because they got through a reel of tickets and started over again. Sometimes you get there and no one has taken a ticket because they just trickled in, but then it became a mob, and no one has a ticket, and there's mass confusion about who's next, and the hell with it. Oscar Mayer is fine.
The problem is that deli counters, like butcher and baker counters, have a tendency toward chaos. You have several workers and a lot of customers and the people behind the counter can't all be counted on to remember the order in which everyone arrived. The ticket system is a brilliant, easily grasped, low-tech, and inexpensive solution. (Four tickets for a penny, by my calculation.) It doesn't always work, as I indicated above. Hyun Lee with Qminder noted two issues with the tickets, the first being: "tickets are tangible objects, which means they can be damaged or lost. Ticket stand may also run out of paper in the most critical moment, preventing people from joining a queue."
Most of the real problems with the ticket system come from lack of effort on all our parts. We're the ones not maintaining ticket condition and presence or refilling the ticket dispenser. We can do this, people.
We need it for the deli counter, which is unlike any other department in the supermarket. The bakery is mostly stuff you grab, like the butcher, and only occasionally there are special orders. Not the deli! And outside of food service, no one else has found it necessary to use the take-a-ticket system--not furniture stores, car dealerships, gas stations, or funeral homes. It's a great solution for a narrow audience.
There are some alternatives to this, but they don't really change the dynamic. Another supermarket in my area has an electronic system where you can use a screen to place your cold-cut order; a computer voice announces over the PA when your order number is up. But that does not remove the need for the ticket system for customers who want to work with the luncheon meat wranglers at the counter; it acts like the line-cutting Disney FastPass, but it takes a wrangler out of queue service and doesn't eliminate the line any more than FastPass adds more seats to rides. Other high-tech alternatives (phone apps and such) are just more modern means of the old ticket system. Restaurants that hand out beepers are another example. They are not ticket systems but they operate on the same queue-without-a-queue idea.
According to a really good article on queuing in Management Today, the paper ticket system was created in the early 1970's to replace a system with reusable (and less hygienic) plastic cards. Did you know that longer belts on checkout lines keep us from feeling like we're on line? Once you get your groceries on the belt you no longer think of yourself as waiting in a queue. I learned something today!
I don't know when the reusable card system began. It seems like the "take a number" system has been with us forever. I couldn't find a patent for it prior to the paper tickets, and I wonder if it just sort of emerged. The Management Today article makes it seem like a British thing, a result of postwar shortages, but I always associated it with New York delis. It's in the culture. Certainly for my whole life I've heard people who are kvetching about something being told, "Yeah, take a numbah, buddy." Anyone with information on this topic is welcome to correspond with me in comments or at frederick_key AT yahoo DOT com.
The other problem with the ticket system is the whole number thing. Hyun Lee writes, "ticket queuing is a non-personal way of interaction between a customer and a business. Studies show that people react more positively when they hear or see their name, while a numbered system reminds them of a DMV office." I suppose the latter objection is true, but I just want my olive loaf. If the person behind the counter is good at the job and friendly, he or she can call me number 6 every day. You may say, "I am not a number, I am a free man!" That's fine, but the deli has no time for your I Gotta Be Me malarkey. They got a lot of meat to move, mister. We all got places to be.
As for me, I am number 6, and I'll have a pound of white American, thanks. Along with the olive loaf.