Choping

Choping, it seems, is a practice in Singapore when you reserve a table while you are getting your food at public eating areas.  The problem (or is it one?) arises when there are more groups of patrons than available tables.  Your little tissue marker stands on the table while other people wander around looking for a place to plant their little markers, so they may better eat their laksa.

It seems to me that choping is efficient.  If you can reserve a table by choping, the inefficiency is that you show up to eat earlier, and grab a table earlier, than you would like to.  But once you have a table you don’t have to hurry so much.  If you can’t reserve the table by choping, the inefficiency is that you go to the food stalls without lines.  (The very best food stalls can have lines of half an hour or more.)  Without choping you are less willing to wait in those lines because the good tables are going away.

Choping increases the ease of getting the very best food of Singapore.  And that food is very very good indeed.

Choping may not be efficient elsewhere. 

Addendum: Al Roth comments.

Comments

It seems inefficient because seats remain empty while people stand in line. It effectively reduces the pool of available seats below what it would be in a dynamic equilibrium.

Take the infamous cruise ship example. A boat with 2,000 passengers may only have 1,000 deck chairs.

Maybe peak demand is 1,100 seats. Without reserving a seat, there are 100 people looking for a seat at peak times... But otherwise there are plenty of seats to go around.

But people don't want to risk being among the 100 wanderers, if only for 20 minutes. So all 2,000 people try to get to the chairs earlier than they would. They mark the chairs with towels or cheap flip flops. Then they go off to have breakfast, work out, get a massage, etc. Then there are maybe 600 people laying out at peak times and 500 wanderers.

Choping dynamics seem similar. The solution exacerbates the underlying problem of scarcity.

I stay in Singapore.

If there many empty tables with markers on them, then the time being spent elsewhere is large relative to the time that would have been spent actually using the seat. There will be a lot of empty marked seats at any given time. Therefore, ignore the marker and just seize a table. If the chope-r returns, be apologetic and move to another empty marked table. Repeat until you have finished your meal.

Otherwise, respect the markers.

I note that this neatly sidesteps stephen stanton's objection.

Stephen Stanton is right. Choping and related practices are inefficient. The scarce resource is tables for people eating. Choping effectively removes a large number of tables from "production", making the bottleneck worse. In fact, it is quite possible that there would be no bottlenick and thus need for choping or waiting at all if 100% of the tables were used for eating at any given time instead of a large number of them being idled. Choping can create shortages and queues where none need exist. It's true that one can construct extreme utility functions to justify almost any outcome (as Babar does), but for smooth, normal utility functions, choping is an example of the tragedy of the commons.

Since tables are the scarce resource, the obvious best solution is to increase the supply of more tables. Failing that, we should decrease demand, preferably using an allocation other than queuing (which is inherently wasteful). How about the good old price system to provide incentives for both supply and demand? Tables could be rented via a small timer, like parking spaces. Dynamic prices adjust so there are always a few tables available (in expectation) at any given time.

Has anyone seen this "market based" solution in action? I haven't, so maybe people feel a disutility from pricing this particular activity.

As said above, this strikes me as an inefficient means of allocation, since Chope'd tables are by definition underutilized. I've seen the opposite posted explicitly as a rule in many locations, the most memorable being a cheesesteak establishment in Philadelphia. A sign was posted instructing patrons to not attempt to mark tables, and to usurp any table where people weren't actively eating. The result of this policy is that a very large number of people were able to find seating among a very limited set of tables with minimal waiting, since the tables were always in use and not being used in an anticipatory fashion.

I'm surprised that Singapore of all places would allow such an antisocial behaviour.

In reality, I'm sure David's suggestion would ring true. Were I in Singapore, with tasty Singaporean food (from what I've read) I would take an unmarked table if available, but barring that I would not feel guilty taking a marked table. After all, someone could have forgotten their marker there, or that they are on a very long line, or maybe they're just marking it for a distant time in the future. Should they come back, I'll move somewhere else. The only time I wouldn't do this is if I were on a date, cause then this would be seem kind of haggarish. Then again, if I'm worried about being haggarish then I'm probably not at the mall's food court anyway.

I don't see why we need to invoke the tastiness of the food; that's just one specific result of not being assured of a seat. I.e. I think we can weigh the pros and cons to get the idea of the tradeoffs involved even if we assume there is one vendor in the food court.

If you're just doing a one-shot thing, I tend to agree with the people who say that the unused capacity is decisive, and hence the lack of enforceable seating rights is the efficient outcome. E.g. if the Red Cross is handing out--one time only--some hot meals in a park and they've set up folding chairs, it might not make sense to allow people to reserve the chairs while they wait in the line.

However, I agree with Tyler that the option to reserve a seat is probably efficient if it's a repeated situation. This is because people can then make plans accordingly. For me personally, I like being able to have my wife find a seat while I wait to get the food, etc. This is because I would dread getting a bunch of food and then trying to eat it standing up with our 4-year-old. I would much rather (a) wait longer or (b) skip the food court entirely if I knew we couldn't get a seat.

It's similar to allowing your friend to save you a seat in the movie theater while you get popcorn or something. Sure, that sets up an inefficient scheme where we all try to beat each other to the theater to get a good seat for our group, but I think the alternative would be worse.

Last point: For those who don't think people should be able to reserve seats, what if you took it further? Once you buy food and have it in the food court, why shouldn't someone be able to walk up and eat it off your tray? After all, if you insist on people having the right to exclude others from your tray, then some food gets thrown out etc. If you feel slighted because someone ate your burger, then you can go grab someone else's burger.

I'm being a bit facetious and the analogy isn't great, but I think it's a similar thing with reserving a table. I enjoy the total package much more if I know I can reserve myself a table if I show up early enough. Maybe I won't bother when it's just me and I'm grabbing lunch while working, but if I'm with my whole family or I have a newspaper then it's worth it to me to "pay more" by showing up early and waiting for a table to open up, then reserving it.

It is pretty obvious that "choping" is a somewhat strange way to have future markets in table sitting. Since choping is essentially the ability to get an almost free option I view it as unlikely that it is efficient.

However, if one could actually buy choping rights, indexed by table and time, then that would seem an arrangement more likely to get close to efficiency.

The question that decides the issue of efficiency is whether the payment in "utils" lost by getting to the eating area early is similar to the payment in money. But no-one gains back the "utils" you lose in that manner -- which is not the case with money payments. There is also the additional issue that the chunks of time you can "buy" can not start in the future, they can only start when you put your napkin of the table, so there is waste in table time, which is only partially regained by the tricks mentioned by other commentators.

Eric, a cheesesteak establishment in which there is only one line is not comparable to a public eating area situation in which there are multiple lines of varying lengths.

In a case where there are multiple lines to choose from, a situation without enforceable choping (like the sign you mentioned) leads people to choose the shorter lines, as Tyler mentioned; and in a cheesesteak establishment one person gets food at a time, so it doesn't make sense for someone further back in line to prevent the person getting food from sitting down promptly (especially when the food might be finished before the other even receives his), whereas when there are multiple lines of varying speeds the situation is less systematic and predictable (relative position in two different lines can't be compared easily) and choping provides a sort of insurance for that.

The inner prankster in me would like to see the result of moving someone else's chope so that two chopes rested at the same table.

Interesting that the more popular hawker stalls don't raise their prices until the lines are eliminated.

Gary, that's a good point. from my experience in these kinds of businesses, I know at least some reasons not to raise prices too much:

- It's not always peak hour. At higher prices, you will be under maximum capacity for longer at the start and end of the evening.
- People work harder when the queue is longer, at least for one or two hours.

It is decidedly different than chairs in parking spots after a snow. That is a result of people shoveling the space themselves, and believing they have an entitlement to continued use of the space. There are some benefits to it, in that allowing it encourages people to shovel out spaces. Choping does not in any way increase the supply of tables.

Maximizing utility always boils down to perspective. The thesis of the original post by Tyler is "Choping increases the ease of getting the very best food of Singapore". Economist-types may say that maximal utility is the system utilization rate of scarce resources. The chopers maximize their convenience, while the ones waiting for a table perpetuate this system by not acting against it.

If I walk a full round and not find an un-choped table, I just help myself to the seat and some tissue paper, and leave 30 cents in place. Happy Eating!

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