Despite some early optimism (especially down here in South Florida, where like a big tease you can always see the beach, even when you can't visit it), it seems like things will continue to be different for a while, even as formal quarantines and stay-home orders are gradually rescinded. Summer camps are canceled in many places, particularly in more densely populated areas. Many employers are encouraging their staff to continue working from home if they're being productive. Some are outright canceling their real estate obligations and telling employees to work from home forever. Meanwhile, grocers, retailers and restaurants are realizing that their (commendable) quick actions to improve sanitation processes and encourage social distancing at their venues might be need to be upgraded as more people start venturing out into the world.

That last point is important, because unlike a lot of white collar workers, retail and food service workers have to actually work at their venues. The same goes for pharmacies, warehouses and government offices. And of course, each of these places is then visited by their own groups of customers. Companies like DoorDash might try to hire every available college student with a driver license to make grocery deliveries, but at some point a lot of people are going to want to go back to picking out their own produce. The Retail Industry Leaders Association and the NRF have partnered to put together a whitepaper that outlines stages of reopening for retail-like businesses, but even in its most optimistic assessment acknowledges that things will be fuzzy for a long time to come. It seems that no one quite has all the answers. So what are all of these venues going to do? Employees want to stay safe, customers and visitors want to isolate as much as possible from each other, and dramatic interior redesigns that enable this are probably going to be out of reach for most. It would seem that the only remaining answer is to find other ways to keep people as far apart as possible. And to that end, I'm proud to say that WireSpring has been working on a solution that may work in a lot of these cases.

For the past several months we've been studying customer queuing at specialty stores, big box retailers, government offices (like the DMV) and other places where it's difficult to outsource your shopping -- and standing in line -- to a 3rd party. These stores are doing their best to encourage social distancing inside, but at key choke points like store entrances, checkout lines, and anything involving customer support it becomes more difficult. It's for these situations -- and many, many others, that we've developed FireCast SmartFlow, a mobile queuing system that lets virtually any venue improve social distancing efforts while enhancing customer service and convenience.

The idea is simple enough. SmartFlow lets people enter a queue using their mobile phone (after scanning a QR code on a storefront window, or texting a SMS number, for example). Their phone then tells them their status, an approximate wait time, and when it's safe to enter the store (or approach the counter). After that, each customer is free to wait in their car, outside, or someplace nearby. There's no reason to stand in large groups or lines. Venues can even elect to let people enter the queue before they've physically arrived.

So a retail store can use SmartFlow to control the rate that shoppers enter the store at, while a restaurant might use it to streamline the takeout process (e.g. by automatically notifying a new customer to come up to the ordering window after the previous customer finishes their transaction). A pharmacy can use SmartFlow to manage prescription pickups (letting each patient know when it's their turn to come up to the counter), while a corporate office or warehouse can use it to let visitors and vendors know when it's their turn to come inside. And as a frequent visitor to my own city hall, I'd really, really like it if our little city permitting office would use SmartFlow to manage walk-in appointments. Then, I could snap a QR code, then wait outside under a tree reading a book until my number was called.

Products like SmartFlow won't be a panacea for out-of-home social distancing. But properly implemented (and ideally served with a whole slew of static and digital signage options explaining just what to do, and why) they could help people feel comfortable about going back into the world, while giving some modicum of extra safety to those folks who find themselves working behind the counter. I'd personally love it if every wait-in-line queue in the world was replaced with something that gave people more freedom to move around and find a comfortable spot. It could be a small part of the (tiny) silver lining that comes with the (gigantic) COVID-19 cloud.

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