Prominently placed security cameras can help deter potential thieves and identify those who do steal.
By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor.
A store cashier pockets the $20 bill that a busy commuter hands him to pay for fuel. A shopper picks up a tube of lip balm and casually drops it into her purse. A customer slips on a wet floor next to a “caution” sign, but his attorney later claims no such signs were at the scene.
These incidents occur in retail establishments on a regular basis. For years, convenience store operators relied on analog video surveillance to discourage employee theft, deter crime and record store activity, but traditional analog cameras typically provide blurry, unclear images. That drawback can prevent a retailer from actually using a recording to solve a problem or provide prosecutable evidence in a criminal case.
Thanks to the Internet, store operators concerned about shrink, shortage and safety now have the ability to videotape all in-store activities, plus monitor their outlets in real time from virtually anywhere in the world using a computer, PDA or even a smartphone.
Digital video surveillance with Internet access offers more dependable capabilities, better picture quality with high compression and a variety of bonus solutions, such as license plate recognition and output alarms for emergency events. The video recordings also may be stored at remote locations for convenience and security and then delivered to law enforcement officials over the LAN or Internet as needed.
Worth the Price
Al’s Corner Stores, a 26-unit chain based in Carroll, Iowa, has used a digital video surveillance system for four years. “We’ve got a computer at each store that records the video and saves it for 30, 45 or 60 days or whatever we set it for,” said Thomas Leise, manager of Internet technology and loss prevention for Al’s. “We can see old video, current video or actual live activity in the store from a remote location. It has helped a ton with employee theft, customer theft and drive offs. If someone falls in a store, you can see if it is an accident.”
Like most companies, Al’s Corner Stores worked with a limited budget when it came to sourcing and installing video security equipment, but Leise wanted to get the best system for the money. “We don’t have the real expensive mega-pixel cameras,” he said. “We bought cheaper cameras, and we got more of them and put them at different angles. I stick them by the doors to see people coming and going. I put them by the registers and try to get a good picture of the sales floor.”
One of the surveillance system’s biggest accomplishments was halting a wave of retail break-ins that occurred at Al’s and other area businesses over several months. The video recorded at Al’s helped police identify the perpetrators and make arrests.
Without video proof of a crime, law enforcement officials often hesitate to prosecute offenders, Leise said. The investment in the surveillance system has “been worth it to us,” he added.
Stores don’t always need to buy completely new equipment to have a reliable digital video surveillance system. Many solution providers create hardware that is compatible or can be configured to work with existing infrastructures. An example of that can be found at The Spinx Cos., the Greenville, S.C., convenience store chain with more than 70 locations. The company has used remote access monitoring for five years. During that time, Spinx has acquired and adapted different tools to create the system it operates today.
“I can log into any store right from my computer and listen to it live with audio,” said Greg Butler, director of operations for Spinx. His supervisors can watch live store activity on their laptops from their own homes.
Each Spinx store has between 8-16 video cameras located inside and outside the building. “If a store requires more than that, I have to put in a second DVR,” said Butler, who has developed his own strategic placement system for the cameras.
Butler likes to install two cameras at the sales counter: one shooting over the cashier’s left shoulder and the other over the right shoulder. “If a cashier is standing at the register, for example, serving the customer, I may have a camera on the left shoulder up on the wall close to the ceiling shooting across the register,” he explained. “I can see what is coming in and out of the drawer, plus it picks up what the customer is doing. Then I may have a second camera up on the register to the right.”
Over time, Butler learned that if the camera is directly behind the cashier it’s not effective because it gives clerks an opportunity to use their body to shield shady activity from the camera’s line of sight. “Putting it straight overhead also doesn’t give me a good enough view of what is going on around the cashier,” he said. “But if I put it over the cashier’s shoulder, the angle picks up the side of the face and the customer interaction. If someone were to come across the counter, I’d pick that up.”
The Spinx surveillance system is user-friendly, allowing Butler to e-mail videos to the local police station or burn a video onto a thumb drive, which is usually adequate for police officers who now have laptops in their patrol cars. “They can put it right in their car laptop and see what is happening,” he said.
Tips for Surveillance Shoppers
When it comes to video surveillance monitoring, the options seem endless. However, there are several important criteria to consider before going shopping. While clear picture quality is mandatory, retailers must understand how much bandwidth the new system will require. “If you’re going to watch over the Internet, know that higher quality videos need more bandwidth,” said Leise.
“Know how much server capability you have,” Butler advised. “If you get the wrong system, it can really eat up your bandwidth and slow everything down. I always get one of my IT guys in there (to help). They speak the language.”
Functionality, ease of use and maneuverability are important considerations, as well. “I didn’t want something complex,” Butler said. “I wanted the dashboard to be easy.”
Prices for sophisticated surveillance systems have dropped in recent years, but retailers will still pay a premium for outdoor cameras that are constructed to withstand harsh weather conditions, such as snow and rain.
Not Just About Theft
For many operators, a digital video surveillance system is designed to be a theft deterrent, but Butler believes it is much more. He tells store trainers to explain the system to new employees and let them know that it was installed for their safety just as lighting under the canopy is for safety.
“You have to sell management that it’s not just for theft,” said Butler. “This thing has really paid off more for safety and customer issues than theft issues. When a trucker lets the nozzle run and drives off, you call the company, and when the owner says his driver didn’t do it, you can show him the video. We have even used it for car wash claims.
“Folks just need to remember, it’s not about the Snickers bar,” Butler added. “They need to think broader than that. The real return on investment is on safety, risk management, and customer and employee injury and incidents. You can’t put a dollar amount on the potential money that can and will be saved by having a great camera system. At Spinx, we have proved it many times over the last four or five years.”
Stats Spotlight the Need for a Security System
There is plenty of evidence to support the investment in an effective video surveillance system.
Shoplifting is one of the most prevalent crimes in the U.S. today. According to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, a private non-profit organization, shoplifting incidents average about 550,000 incidents each day, and those losses total an estimated $13 billion annually.
In addition, a study conducted by the University of Florida reported that retail security managers attribute more than 48% of their losses to employee theft.