Follow TV Tropes


Express Lane Limit

Go To
"Twelve items is an estimate. The trapdoor only opens after I scan the sixteenth item."

Joker (dressed as Batman): I must say, Mayor, of all the scum I've taken down so far, it was your wife who disappointed me the most.
Mayor Grange: My wife? Sheila?! What have you done to Sheila?!
(Camera pans to Sheila, who's been Joker gassed and left dangling outside a skyscraper)
Joker: Eleven items at a ten-item grocery checkout. She had it coming.

In large supermarkets, certain checkout lanes will be designated "N Items or Less". These "Express Lanes" allow customers with small orders to avoid a long wait in line behind those who are purchasing many items.

In fiction, Hilarity Ensues when someone blatantly exceeds the limit or tries to stay under by making up rules about what can be considered as a single item. Oftentimes, exceeding the limit by one item is common fodder for a Felony Misdemeanor.

There's a variant where someone is only a little over the limit in a way that everyone finds acceptable, but wastes a lot of time fretting over the limit out of principle, trying to decide what they don't need and what should or shouldn't count as one item.

This was Truth in Television for a long time as stores are reluctant to enforce this rule due to customer service reasons. However, the replacement of express lanes by self-checkout machines have turned this into a mostly Discredited Trope. Some proprietors have chosen to designate lanes as "basket only", placing a limit on the volume of purchases rather than quantity. Additionally, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some stores have designated lanes limited to non-cash payments. That being said, there are still large regional supermarket chains in the United States (such as New England's Market Basket chain) that continue to use express lanes and staunchly refuse to add self-service lanes out of tradition and/or wanting their customers (mostly consisting of older clientele) to be served by real people. And some companies such as Walmart have started removing self-checkout lanes from some stores due to rising issues such as errors that have been causing customers to get frustrated with the technology used by these systems and increases in shoplifting.


    open/close all folders 

  • A 1-800-COLLECT commercial played off this. We start with a pan of several bored and angry shoppers waiting in the express lane, and when we reach the front, we see a little old lady standing beside a large pile of dozens of cans of cat food. As the cashier rings up each can one by one, the lady turns around to the people behind her, and innocently (or smugly) says, "It's only one item."
  • A Looney Tunes-themed ad for Crush had Sylvester speeding toward the express lane with a very loaded cart (ostensibly trying to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, as Tweety was in the vicinity). A siren sounded, two tollgates descended to block the lane, and a guard escorted Sylvester by the wrist.
  • There was a Glade detergent commercial where the customer argued that three bottles of Glade count as one item because 12 eggs count as one item. The cashier explains that the three Glades are separate items because each one smells different. She then gets distracted by enjoying/describing the new scents.

  • George Carlin invoked this trope's spirit in one of his "Ways to Keep People Alert." Carlin suggested going into a supermarket, filling a shopping cart with a huge mound of groceries, then trying to get in line behind someone with only one item.
    "Do you mind?! For Christ's sake, I'm in a hurry! I only have eleven hundred items!"
  • Jeanne Robertson's "Never Send a Man To the Grocery Store" (as can be seen here) ends with her husband complaining that because of the way she wrote the shopping list for him, of course he couldn't use the express lane.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Black and White: In "Petty Crimes", a serial killer targets people who break small rules. The first of his victims to be shown is a woman who took twelve items into the Ten Items Or Less lane.

  • Some students in Cambridge, Massachusetts do their weekly run to the supermarket. After getting everything, they go to the cashier. The cashier guy asks: "And, what are you studying?" - "How do you know we're students?" The cashier guy points to the express lane sign and answers: "MIT students can't read, Harvard students can't count."

  • Frequently turns up in Dave Barry's writings. Rules about the Express Lane are presented as amendments to the U.S. Constitution in Dave Barry Slept Here and Dave Barry Hits Below The Beltway. Dave Barry in Cyberspace cites the Supreme Court decision in the case of Mrs. Bernice A. Whackerdorfer v. A Bunch of Really Angry People Waiting in Line Behind Her in rejecting the argument that a box of Shredded Wheat and a box of Froot Loops are one item because they're both cereal.
  • One Encyclopedia Brown mystery depended on the victim's strict adherence to this trope, and the fact that the non-express checkout lanes at the local supermarket took forever.
  • In the Ramona Quimby books, Mr. Quimby works as a supermarket cashier for awhile. The express lane has a nine-item limit, but customers frequently try to sneak through with ten or eleven items. The customers often count the items in each others' baskets and argue among themselves. Naturally, Mr. Quimby dislikes it whenever he has to work the express lane.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Doc Martin, Martin's secretary is late to work on her first day because she stopped by the supermarket to get supplies, and got into an argument about whether she was entitled to use the "six items or less" lane (she had 20 items, but claimed the important thing was she had fewer than six types of item).
  • An episode of the Canadian show Hiccups depicts Millie Upton getting frustrated at a woman ahead of her having more than the allotted number of items and using coupons.
  • In the Good Luck Charlie episode, "Duncan Vs. Duncan", Amy and Bob are in the 15-items-or-less lane with 17 items. When the lady behind them screams for them to get out of line, Amy loses her temper and scans her face with a pricing gun. Meanwhile, Bob stands by, eating a donut (he claims he was trying to get them down to 15 items). This particular instance isn't seen to the viewers, but is heard about from Bob and Amy.
  • The Wright Way was an otherwise so-so comedy series about an anally-retentive Health And Safety officer. But one stellar piece of comedy was set in a supermarket check-out line where the anally retentive Mr Wright protested about the woman in front of him having nine articles in her basket, one over the limit.
  • Cracker: One episode had Fitz get into an argument with a cashier while trying to use the express line. His argument was that he technically only had two items (lager and some kind of junk food): he just just had multiple examples of each item.
  • QI had David Tennant go on a brief rant about this:
    Tennant: I'll tell you what annoys me: if it's "Five items or fewer", then it's five items or fewer, don't come in with six and stand in front of me!
    Stephen Fry: And you look in their baskets to count?
    Tennant: Yeah, you bet I do! And then say absolutely nothing about it...
    Lee Mack: What if it's 3-for-2?
    Tennant: *considers* I'll give you one of those items off [...] but if there's not a special offer on, and I'm checking!
    Mack: You're Scottish, I know you're checking for those special offers.
  • In the "Price Check" skit from Random Acts Of Variety, the maximum for the express line is five items. The cashier tries to eject a customer bearing a six-pack of soda.
  • In an episode of Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave suggests the "10 items or less" lane in a supermarket should really be named the "10 items or less, approximately, nobody who works here is paid enough to count your actual items, just don't take the piss, OK?" lane. He then discusses an argument he got into with another customer who thought he should be removed from the express lane because he was treating 3 oranges and a bunch of 5 bananas as 2 items rather than 8.
    Dave: Do you know what makes it worse? The person who was complaining, they were buying a bag of bloody rice! Hundreds of bloody items, hundreds!

  • The opening line of Martina McBride's "Love's the Only House" deals with her being behind a woman who has 35 things in an express lane.
  • In Hank Green's "I'm Gonna Kill You", a song about wanting Disproportionate Retribution, one of the offenders is a woman who violates the express lane limit, along with other things such as arguing over coupons and sending her husband to retrieve an item she forgot.
  • Capitol Steps' "Serb War" claims that the Yugoslav conflicts were the product of an Escalating War that started this way:
    A Serb bought five sheep at a medieval store,
    Express line had a limit of four,
    Muslim said, "That's too many sheep,"
    Serb called Muslim a hairy creep,
    Muslim swung but he hit Croat,
    Croat swung back and he knocked Serb flat...
  • In Ray Stevens' "Super Cop", a Lawful Stupid cop catches a customer with 11 items in a 10-items-or-less lane. His solution is to have her drink the entire bottle of corn oil, which… goes right through her.
  • The "Weird Al" Yankovic song "Midnight Star" opens with the line "I was standing in the express lane with my twelve items or less" (it's about a tabloid newspaper he sees while waiting in line).

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In one Dilbert strip:
    Cashier: This looks like a lot more than ten items, ma'am.
    Woman: It doesn't matter. I'm old and you must do as I say.
    • She suffers a Karmic Death (kinda) when she is rummaging through her hopelessly-messy purse looking for coupons and gets torn apart by a pack of wild coyotes living in her purse. Old Dilbert strips were weird.
  • One Mother Goose and Grimm strip had Mother Goose at a "10 items or less" line. The cashier asks Mother Goose to move to a different lane, claiming she has a bag of 10 apples, a carton of 12 eggs, a bunch of 39 grapes, and a box of 1500 Cheerios. She decides just to buy a quart of milk... but the cashier says there are 32 ounces in the quart.
  • A One Big Happy strip had a twist, where a man asked if he could cut ahead of Grandma because he only had one item. She said yes, and he proceeded to pay with a check, causing Grandma to scare him off by ramming him with her basket. The cashier says she's shocked, not because of what Grandma did, but because she didn't do it sooner.
  • Garfield:
    • This strip has Jon and Garfield go through the express lane, only for the cashier to tell Jon that he has more than 12 items. Garfield then eats one of the items that Jon had in the cart, prompting the cashier to grab Garfield and scan him before putting him in a shopping bag.
      Jon: I didn't know you had a bar code.
      Garfield: Just keep pushing.
    • Discussed in this strip.
      Jon: Hey, Garfield, you know that checkout lane at the grocery store for 10 items or less? Well, sir, I made it through with 12, count 'em, 12 items! [fist pumps repeatedly]
      Garfield: One small step for man, one giant leap for nerdkind.
  • In one Pearls Before Swine strip, Rat gets a job as a supermarket cashier, and a customer comes by with a box of corn flakes. After Rat rips the box open and counts a total of 575 corn flakes, he flips out on the customer, with predictable results.
    Pig: And the manager fired you?
    Rat: Yeah, and I was like, "Duuude, I did not write the rules", and he's like, "Dude, that is not how the 'ten items or less' lane works."

  • In one space arc Arthur, King of Time and Space, Arthur is in a supermarket checkout, and says the total is a bit over what he expected. The cashier reminds him that he recently put a tax on entering the express lane with too many items, and Arthur pays up.

    Web Original 
  • This story on Not Always Right contains a story where a customer brings 20 items to a checkout with a limit of 12. The cashier admonishes her to use the other lanes next time, but the customer outright refuses, saying "Express is faster."
  • An episode of the Cheat Commandos involves said commandos intercepting Blue Laser at the supermarket and trying to apprehend him for having "Two too many" items at the express lane. The items are actually two twin babies.

    Western Animation 
  • The Batman, when Joker goes Bat-mimic he Joker gasses people for whatever trivial "crimes" he notices. Littering (can hits the bin and bounces out), jaywalking, and 11 items at a ten or fewer checkout; tsk tsk.
  • One episode of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers had villainous mad scientist Professor Nimnul trying to get a colossal stockpile of prunes (long story) out through an express lane, with predictable results (apart from Nimnul's retort: "I've only got one item - prunes!").
  • The variant is used in the Family Guy episode "Brian Sings and Swings".
    Bruce: I definitely need a breath freshener. Ooh, but that's gonna give me 11 items.
    Cashier: That's fine.
    Bruce: No, no, no. Rules is rules. Let's see what I'm gonna put back. Okay, I need the Reynolds Wrap and the bathroom tissue. I could do without the Triscuits, but they sure are good. 7 Up's the whole reason I came down here in the first place. You know what, I'm not gonna need the V8, 'cause I can just get some tomato juice at the mini-mart down the street. It's a little more expensive, but that's okay; I like to help out a small business. I hope it's okay if I pay in pennies. [dumps a whole bag of pennies on the counter].
  • In the Johnny Bravo episode "Johnny's Inferno", one of the evil deeds that a demon makes Johnny do is going (slightly) over the checkout lane limit. The cashier doesn't have a problem with this, though, much to his disappointment.
  • Sarcastically invoked after Dr. Drakken tricks Kim Possible into stealing a Telephone Teleport device for him:
    Drakken: With this teleportation module, I shall be able to instantly transport myself into any high security area I please! Imagine it, Shego, the sky's the limit! Fort Knox, the Louvre...
    Shego: Or into the "ten items or less" line with eleven items, huh?
  • Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain: In one episode, Brain tried to become a masked hero to get people to respect him. One of his attempted good deeds was preventing a man from using the express lane with one item above the limit. Nobody cared.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "The Principal and the Pauper", Edna throws away some items from her cart to join Marge and Agnes in a line to talk about Skinner.
    • In the episode where Apu was living with the Simpsons, he advised Marge against using the Monstromart express lane ("1000 Items or less") because, while the person in front of her only had one item, it was a lonely elderly person (Grandpa Abe, no less) who would milk the checkout process for as much time as possible just to have some social contact. ("There's an interesting story about this nickel...") Instead, Apu directed Marge to a lane with a long line, but the line was composed entirely of single men with one or two items each who just wanted to pay for their stuff and get out.
  • It's a SpongeBob Christmas!: In the song "Don't Be a Jerk, It's Christmas," Spongebob lists various little behaviors you should not engage in because they're Felony Misdemeanors. Among them is using the express lane when you have more than ten items.
  • An episode of Stressed Eric had three such lanes: "Less than ten items but more than four", "less than four items but more than one", and "one item or less" (which the titular character promptly use to checkout one potato.
  • T.U.F.F. Puppy: In "Super Duper Crime Busters", T.U.F.F. is looking for a crime to thwart so as not to look bad on the titular Show Within a Show. At one point, Dudley and Kitty try to arrest The Chameleon, who's doing his grocery shopping of eggs, milk, cricket jerky, and swim goggles (which don't fit his eyes). When Dudley tries to arrest The Chameleon on the grounds that he was in the 10-items-or-less or less lane with 15 items, The Chameleon points out that a carton of eggs counts as a single item.