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As Cities Reopen, Expect to Wait in Lots of Lines

The lines.

They’re everywhere.

In San Francisco, lines for trendy—and now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, takeout-only—restaurants wend about the block. New Yorkers waiting for grab-and-go drinks—legalized especially for the pandemic—are socializing on line. (The locals will tell you: People wait “on line” in New York, not “in” one.) Across the nation, families line up for food banks. As many offices begin to welcome back workers, some are asking each to queue for a temperature check before entering the building. Once inside, there may be another wait, to take a reduced-capacity elevator. (Decals placed on the floor instruct riders to squeeze into corners.) Waits for reduced-occupancy grocery stores curl through parking lots, a Disneyland-style detour without the ride at the end.

They’re boring.

They’re frustrating.

They can get hot.

They’re the new normal.

The queues are so ubiquitous, in fact, that the people in charge of buildings—all sorts of buildings—are looking for help. The makers of software to count people are ready.

When the pandemic hit North America in late February, Patrick Thuot thought his company was in trouble. Quebec-based SMS Store Traffic has been around for nearly 50 years, offering technology that sounds simple: It counts people as they come in the door. “People don’t realize it, but most big chains are counting,” says Thuot.

Retailers use people-counting systems to track the flow of customers and schedule employees. Stadium operators want to know when the bathroom wait is the longest. Smaller businesses like bars and clubs use them to ensure they’re following fire codes. Some public services—libraries, for example—are required to track how many visitors come in their doors. In 2018, the consultancy Global Marketing Insights valued the worldwide market for people-counting systems at $900 million and predicted it would grow to $2 billion by 2025, buoyed by a fervor for retail analytics.

Thuot feared that a pandemic would mean no one walking through any doors. Then no one would need companies like SMS Store Traffic, which offers door-mounted cameras and sensors, plus the software to manage counting behind the scenes. Other companies track customers’ Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals to determine when and where they enter and exit.

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Instead, occupancy limits imposed by government mandate and by cautious managers are giving companies like Thuot’s a reprieve. SMS Store Traffic quickly repackaged some features to create a product pitched to companies welcoming visitors during the pandemic. Some clients, he says, are posting the data to their websites or social media accounts to warn prospective customers when it might be too crowded to enter. Others are linking the systems to displays outside their stores, telling line-waiters when they might enter. “The lines are, unfortunately, a necessity right now,” Thuot says.

Skyfii, which offers analytics and marketing software for brick-and-mortar businesses, says interest in its people-counting product more than doubled in April, compared with the same month in 2019. Systems like Skyfii’s help create lines, by telling building managers when it’s safe for people to enter. CEO Wayne Arthur says he also hopes it fights them. “We’re hoping the software might alleviate people’s concern around, ‘Well, how long is this going to be?’ It’s frustrating when you don’t know any better.”

Retail stores, offices, restaurants, and bars have always had occupancy limits. But in general, businesses want people in them. The more people eating food, sipping Negronis, and picking out sweaters, the more money. Now, social distancing guidelines attempt to prevent the spread of the virus by maintaining 6-foot buffers between patrons. In Chicago, which entered into its Phase 3 “cautiously reopen” stage earlier this month, indoor nonessential retailers are limited to 25 percent of their normal capacity, while essential ones can creep up to 50 percent. Kansas City salons can operate at 50 percent, with 6 feet of separation.

Discount chain HomeBuys, which has six locations in Ohio and Kentucky, usually permits 600 customers to hunt through its 80,000-square-foot stores for good deals. Now, says company network administrator Jorge Alexandres, only 80 can enter at a time. At one point during the pandemic, it used staffers to man the door. Now it uses a people-counter system mounted to its threshold, which sends alerts to managers’ phones when the store is getting too full.

In some ways, the six-month-old Jefferson Bodega had terrible timing. The San Antonio convenience store opened just before the pandemic reached Texas, and now the corner spot stocked with beer, snacks, and an international candy assortment allows only 11 people in a space built for 22. The bodega uses a people-counting set-up from a San Francisco-based company called Density to make sure only so many people enter at once. Owners Luke and Lisa Horgan have backgrounds in media and tech, and also like to geek out on the software’s analytics.

Generally, lines to enter the bodega aren’t bad—only about five minutes on busy periods during the weekends, says Luke Horgan. He likes to think about it this way: “People waiting at the door are decreasing the traffic at the register.” In other words: We’re always waiting.

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