By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor
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 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.
Ten years ago, Kwik Trip, the La Crosse, Wis.-based convenience operator, had approximately 250 stores, but only 10% of those outlets had security cameras. Today, the chain has grown to 450 locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and northeast Iowa, and each one is part of a sophisticated security network designed to protect customers and employees, minimize theft and mitigate insurance claims.
“The average Kwik Trip store can have anywhere between 20 and 36 cameras,” said Brett Gooden, director of loss prevention for Kwik Trip. “But that is just inside and outside the building. A single-bay car wash will have five additional cameras, and double bays have 10.”
The cameras operate around the clock, 365 days a year, recording the doings at each busy convenience outlet. The recorded video is archived locally for a designated period of time. When required, the company will extract and save any video needed in the prosecution of a crime.
“We use the cameras in our stores to look at customer service issues, theft issues, issues with vendors, public liability and workers compensation,” said Gooden. “The exterior cameras record information that can be used to counter claims about falls or damage in a car wash.”
Because store exteriors and car wash cameras are exposed to water, snow, heat and temperatures that dip to 30 degrees below zero, each camera is housed in a vandal-resistant, metal casing that has its own heater.
Cameras located near the outdoor fuel pumps are sharp enough to capture license plate numbers and provide near-immediate video retrieval. In the event a driver takes off without paying for a fill-up, information collected on camera is quickly relayed to the Kwik Trip Collection Department, and attempts are made to collect what is owed. “We’re very vertically integrated,” he said. “We take care of things ourselves.”
Thanks to its cutting-edge camera system, Kwik Trip’s long-time low shrink rate remains low. “We probably have the best shrink rate in the industry,” Gooden said.
The Right Stuff
When Gooden joined the company’s loss prevention department a decade ago, he was assigned the task of updating and expanding the stores’ security system. Initially, the operation relied on analog cameras. Today, Gooden describes the analog camera as “a dinosaur.” Video from the typical analog camera is grainy and images of people are difficult to identify.
Currently, Kwik Trip’s system uses high-resolution Internet protocol cameras, better known as IP cameras, which can send and receive data via the Internet.
“With an IP camera, you’re going to get a better quality picture, and you have a lot of different setting options,” Gooden explained. “You’ll get a lot more detail [in the recording]. Let’s say we have a customer or worker performing a dishonest activity, and we need to see details with regard to dollar bills, checks or money orders. We can see them a lot better with an IP camera as opposed to an analog. In fact, you can identify the denomination of bills.”
In addition to the stores, Kwik Trip’s IP cameras are strategically placed in the company’s bakery, commissary, dairy and warehouse facilities. This helps ensure quality in food preparation, storage and distribution, while increasing the company’s overall safety and security. For example, high-resolution IP cameras help Kwik Trip better monitor its baked good production line and verify product labels in the tobacco distribution center.
“Our operations team also uses the system to monitor what’s happening in our kitchen center to improve the efficiency of how we cook our food,” Gooden said. “We monitor store inventory, especially the foods we sell, to reduce waste. Based on what we witness on the video, we’ve added and changed store policies and training to improve the quality of our customer service.”
Kwik Trip’s communication center in Wisconsin is staffed 24/7, and the communication team can access all cameras in the system. “They can pull up specific cameras at each store,” Gooden said. “I can even do it from my computer at home. In fact, anyone can access the stores from wherever they are if they have the right software and security clearance.”
Helping Law Enforcement
The Kwik Trip security network has helped local law enforcement solve crimes that are not related to the convenience stores’ operations, thanks to PTZ—pan, tilt and zoom. “Our PTZ cameras can zoom in, out and move around,” Gooden said. “And there are times when they can see and record beyond our property.”
In one situation, police called on Kwik Trip to help provide evidence in a murder investigation. Thanks to the company’s security system, the retailer could deliver a recording of the victim and the suspected perpetrator together in an auto shortly before the crime occurred.
“It didn’t take long for law enforcement officials to figure out that Kwik Trip usually has the best camera system in town,” Gooden said.
Most of the Kwik Trip cameras are housed in a dome and visible to customers and store staff. About half have microphones that record the interaction between shoppers and employees. “You can see our cameras everywhere, and we put signage in the stores and on the fuel pumps to remind people they’re on video,” Gooden said.
In the event that Loss Prevention team members must investigate an ongoing situation in a store, they will use small, covert cameras that can be easily concealed inside something as small as a package of cigarettes and blend effortlessly into the environment.
Create Your Own System
To create its current system, Kwik Trip worked with Hunter Security & Surveillance Systems, a security firm headquartered in Greenville, Wis. Hunter provides security systems to both commercial and residential customers and recommended Axis Communications, a global network video provider based in Boston, to supply cameras for the company’s security network.
While pleased with the existing system, the chain continues to review and field-test new hardware that could provide additional enhancements. One camera recently tested in a new Kwik Trip location featured two-way audio and HDTV-quality resolution.
When it comes to installing the ideal security system, every business wants to avoid costly mistakes. Creating a first-class security network that meets the needs of your organization requires time, money, extensive research and even a beta test of the equipment you are considering.
From his own experience, Gooden has two pieces of advice for any retailer planning to invest in a new security system. First, he said, is to work exclusively with top-quality service providers.“You don’t want to go with a fly-by-night company,” he said. “You want to find good installers and integrators that have established a solid reputation.”
And just as important, when the new system is in place, you want to use it consistently and let the world know about it. “If the bad guys figure out you aren’t watching those cameras, all heck is going to break loose,” Gooden said.