Working in an analytics company often gets me thinking about how I could use some of our advanced techniques in everyday life. Specifically, I often daydream about the mathematical process called optimization. Really I do, don’t you?

In the most basic terms, optimization is the selection of one or more "best alternatives" from a larger set of possibilities. From a business perspective, optimization could involve determining the best three car loan offer options to give to a prospective buyer, considering (among other things) the buyer's ability to repay the loan (based on credit history) and the lender's risk appetite (as well as indirect factors such as dealer incentives).Non-banking examples include optimizing sport schedules (think TV deals and travel challenges), as well as determining the best way to provision everything from fuel to beer and peanuts on an airline, per this video.

But that's all business, right? What if we had access to the same optimization tools to make important decisions on an everyday basis? Heck, maybe some budding genius could develop an app to help us solve life’s most pressing - or sometimes depressing - challenges. And to me, nothing could be more problematic than the grocery store.

The Grocery Store

Grocery stores use optimization to drive more sales. That's why candy and magazines are so prevalent at the checkout line, and staples like milk are in the back.

So what if shoppers could use optimization too to tackle the checkout line.

Today it’s a guessing game. You've filled your shopping cart with your weekly staples and, hopefully, some goodies. The checkout lines are packed. You need to make a snap decision about which line to pay in. Quickly sizing up the options, you choose the promising line with one person unloading her cart. But the line is slow. Molasses slow. She’s a couponer, who is buying lots of produce and food in bulk, and she notices she has a damaged bottle of seltzer water – That coupon is only for the 32 ounce box. Price check on Lane 7! Can I get a new bottle of seltzer water? Plus this is the only line without a bagger. And now the person ahead of you is on the mobile phone, not bagging her own food (and she’ll probably also need a subtle nudge from the cashier when it’s time to pay). Yep. You've done it – you picked the wrong line.

It’s also not profitable for the grocery store to have slow lines. Some folks are in a rush and can get frustrated with long waits, even when the store isn’t crowded. Those people may not return if they’re continually stuck in slow lines. Other customers may need extra help.

Now close your eyes and imagine you have "Opticheck," the magical optimization app of daydreams for consumers at the grocery store. Providing the optimal way to get people in and out of the store quickly – making them happy and the store more profitable.

Opticheck is two things – an app downloaded by consumers for participating grocers, as well as a service that each grocer can tailor for its customers – not only for line optimization, but also for marketing offers, recipes, and other revenue-generating opportunities.

When each shopper approaches the checkout area, Opticheck's magical scanning technology:

1. Scans the lanes to determine which are open; which have baggers vs. which don't; which are about to open and whether there are express lanes.
2. Has innate knowledge of the other shoppers in line, and knows which shoppers will need more help than others.
3. Knows what is in everyone’s shopping basket to determine things like eligibility for an express lane (e.g., 13 items or less), and calculated wait time.
4. Analyzes the currently working checkout personnel and determines if someone needs to come off break, or a bagger needs to be added to an especially slow line.
5. Recommends a line for each shopper, based on getting people through the store as efficiently as possible.
The net, or course, is less stress. More store revenues thanks to those offers. Smarter checkouts and happier customers. Shoppers who use the app could get preferred treatment. The store might even go as far as creating special “Opticheck” lines, similar to airports that have pre-screened security queues. Special consideration may be given to people who respond to more Opticheck marketing offers, e.g., moving them up the checkout queue.

Sounds pretty neat, eh? But you're thinking, "hey, I'd love to use Opticheck to plan my trip through the store – so I'm super-efficient." Brought to you by the genius developers who gave you Opticheck, it's Optishop! Free download, and lots of offers to, er, help you shop intelligently. Ah yes, now you’re talking. Now you too are day dreaming about optimization.

P.S. If you’re chomping at the bit to learn more about optimization, check out this blog from my colleague Tom Travis. If you love board games, I think you’ll enjoy Tom’s blog.