The technology behind security cameras and surveillance systems continues to improve.
Warren Scheidt, owner of Cork Liquors, a 28-year-old operation with 11 stores located in and around Columbus, IN, remembers how security cameras used to be.
In each store, a VCR, “like you’d have in your house,” Scheidt said, would be attached to two or three cameras. The recorder would be running at a reduced speed, recording one second out of every five, and it would be switching between the cameras.
“Because it was jumping back and forth, if you were ever robbed, you could literally miss seeing the gun,” said Scheidt.
But that was, at the time, the best system a retailer, especially a relatively small retailer, could get.
These days, the newest Cork Liquor store, which opened May 2009, has a 16-camera system, 13 cameras in the store and three monitoring the store’s exterior, including its soda machines and its parking lot. These cameras record in color and with enough detail that Scheidt can see if a clerk is handling a $1 or a $10 bill. And because the system is a digital or IP (internet protocol) one, Scheidt can do this remotely, viewing any camera in any of his 11 stores on a screen in his office. “The Columbus Police Department has told me that I have the best security system in town,” said Scheidt. The 16-camera set-up in his newest store cost $7,500, including installation.
“And if I knew there was something better out there, I’d get it,” he said. “It’s best to get the best you can. You’ll be glad you did.”
Scheidt has experienced many situations that prove his point. In a recent incident, a 17-year-old girl, arrested for drunk driving after a car accident, told her parents and the police she got her alcohol at a Cork Liquors. “She told them what time she was here, what she purchased and the whole bit,” said Scheidt. “Well, we went to the camera system and there was a guy and a girl, exactly like she said, except the girl wasn’t her. We could see that clearly. The girl in the image was a regular customer, over 21. If the camera system hadn’t cleared us, we would have easily spent $7,500 in fines and for attorneys.”
So, what new surveillance technology is coming online for small to midsized retailers?
IP Systems Continue To Gain
Internet protocol, or IP, systems continue to replace the VCR systems of the past. In an effort to ease the transition – and lower the cost – to IP, equipment companies offer “hybrid” systems that can use a retailer’s existing analog cameras but convert the images they produce to digital form. One way to do this is to use a digital video recorder (DVR), an appliance that can take the images from analog cameras and convert them to a digital format. These can then be saved, in the DVR’s hard drive or on a disc.
Another, newer way to continue to use analog cameras is to use an encoder. An encoder converts the information from an analog camera to a digital form but can also transmit that information to a remote location. This allows a retailer to view his stores, live, remotely. Sony’s Security Systems Group recently released a new encoder.
Such hybrid systems offer some of the benefits of IP, such as remote viewing and storage of images digitally, at a lower cost. They do not, however, have all the capabilities of a true IP system, where the cameras themselves produce the IP signals. For instance, with a true IP system, a person viewing the images remotely can, in real time, control the camera and move it. They can even speak to people in the store through an IP system equipped with audio capabilities.
On the other side of the equation, a company called Scallop Imaging is looking to reduce the cost of an IP system by providing an IP camera that can do two things: cover a wider area so the retailer needs fewer cameras and send its images using less bandwidth.
“The use of bandwidth can be a struggle,” explained Dr. Ellen Cargill, director of product development at Scallop. “Retailers want high-resolution but that takes a daunting amount of bandwidth.” Scallop’s new camera, Digital Window, manages how it uses bandwidth: it uses one setting to send a full-motion version, a high-frame rate but at lower resolution and it also sends the images a second way, at a low-frame rate, but with higher resolution and more detail.
The camera, which is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, uses several sensors or lenses rather than just one, and then integrates all that input into one image. This allows one camera to provide a 180-degree view, without distortion. “You could have only one camera up on the wall,” said Cargill. The Digital Window will be available at the end of this year, at a suggested retail price of $830.
Once a surveillance system is producing digital images, those images can then be analyzed by technology in a process called “video analytics.” Motion detection is the simplest version of such analysis. This is when the cameras only record when they sense motion. “This can really save on storage costs,” said David Raske, marketing manager of VideoSurveillance.com, a Portland, OR company that sells IP camera systems. Some IP systems can be set up to watch for the motion of certain objects in its view, such as a door or a bottle of expensive liquor. When the object in question moves, an email or text message, with a snapshot of the image attached, can be sent automatically to a manager.
One company, called StopLift, has developed a system that, using a store’s existing camera system (any camera will work, though it must be installed directly over the check-out lane) and its POS data, will watch for “sweethearting,” when a clerk gives products away to customers. “You can only find this activity if you’re watching for it,” said Malay Kundu, CEO of StopLift, which is based in Cambridge, MA. Kundu points out that sweet-hearting, unlike ringing voids, leaves no paper trail. “The software reads the body motion of the cashier. Nobody watches that overhead video, but StopLift can go through hours and hours of it very quickly.” Store operators receive a report, with marked-up video, of all the sweet-hearting incidents StopLift has found, within 24 hours. In one installation, StopLift’s first report showed two cashiers, the assistant manager and the manager all giving away product.
StopLift is a subscription service, with the price based, not on the number of lanes in the store, but on the store’s sales volume, to make it affordable to retailers of all sizes. The system, currently in use at three supermarket chains, pays for itself in three to six months, according to Kundu.
Cork’s Scheidt continues to look toward the future, with his security systems. “When I get a new POS system, I would like to get it integrated with our camera system,” he said. “Right now, we have better camera systems than we do POS systems. Having good security systems wards off a lot of trouble and they generally pay for themselves.”