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Express Lane Limit

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"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 a large supermarket, there will be more than one checkout lane clearly designated "N Items or Fewer" (or "N Items or Less," which makes Grammar Nazis complain). This allows customers who don't have a lot to buy not to have to wait in line behind those who do.

In fiction, mounting violence 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.

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.

These days, the advent of self-checkout lanes in supermarkets has made this less common than it used to be. Customers can now judge, based on how many items they are purchasing, whether it's less effort to wait in line for an employee to ring them up, or to simply do it themselves. Alternatively, the lanes are designated as "basket only", placing a limit on volume of purchases rather than quantity.


Going one item over the limit is common fodder for a Felony Misdemeanor. Compare Mattress Tag Gag.


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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 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.

  • 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.
  • This Garfield strip had 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • The Monstromart has a “1000 items or less” express lane.
    • In yet another episode where Apu was living with the Simpsons, he advised Marge against using the express lane in a different supermarket 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. 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.
  • 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!").
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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].
  • 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.


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