When we think of electronic surveillance all sorts of images, thoughts and emotions come to mind. For some of us it’s George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, which depicted a totalitarian state that kept every individual under surveillance every minute of every day. For others it evokes scenes from recent movies like the Jason Bourne series, in which a government agency could not only monitor but direct field agents from a distant ‘situation’ room! However, it isn’t my intention to explore these high-end monitoring systems, or even to discuss the ethics or morality of surveillance systems in this editorial – however interesting that may be! Rather it is to describe some of the trends that have a direct effect on our daily living experience. Specifically: plot the trends and developments of electronic surveillance in the retail, service and hospitality environments.
Electronic surveillance is not new and it’s been with us in some form since the advent of easily recordable video formats like VHS and Beta. Corporate owners of retail spaces such as malls, supermarkets and service stations were early adopters of electronic surveillance, as the deterrent effect and increased conviction rates of their camera networks had a noticeable effect on profitability and increased patronage due to the perception of enhanced safety. Traditionally these systems have been very expensive to install and maintain, with large point-to-point networks based on coaxial cabling, large-capacity analogue recording devices, and requiring live monitoring by trained security personnel to be effective.
But surveillance technology has moved on, along with everything else electronic. Decreasing costs and increasing functionality of the cameras and storage hardware have meant that it’s now viable to implement a small surveillance network in a single POS lane establishment. Cameras can now be plugged into existing Ethernet networks with their own IP address, saving on the need for an independent network. Added to this, the price of a typical DVR (digital video recorder) or hard-drive stack with the several terabytes of hard-drive space required to give a 60-day recording cycle is now in the same ball park as an ordinary PC. Plus, developments in POS software and video data management systems have transformed digital surveillance methods from screeds of tricky-to-use tape into a highly focused management tool capable of analysing specific events in detail. This means there is an opportunity for IT resellers to move into the surveillance space.
Retail and hospitality
So, what can a typical retail, service or hospitality surveillance system look like? Very basically, a modern system will be made up of a number of cameras (analogue or digital) linked via coaxial cable or CAT 5 cabling to the recording device, most often a DVR. A simple setup may have a high-quality, image-capable camera focused on the entrance to obtain ‘head and shoulders’ identity images; a camera in the area to monitor and record general movements and activities; a camera over the point of sale to observe the transaction from above; and a camera in the car park to identify car registration plate numbers.
Another popular place for a camera is in the incoming goods area or warehouse. The modern DVR effectively encodes and records these multiple video feeds with a time stamp, which enables users to replay the feeds simultaneously for a specified time frame. The DVR is then connected to a standalone mini-PC or back-office server that synchronises the multiple video feeds recorded on the DVR with the transactional data recorded by the POS software.
Once synchronised, the recorded video can be searched based on information recorded on a typical receipt like the identity of the POS station and operator, transaction number, payment type, product codes and loyalty numbers, plus information received directly from the POS terminal like the cash drawer’s open or closed status, operator logon and off and the terminal on or off status.
With this information the video evidence of a disputed transaction can be quickly found by a simple search based on a transaction number. Or, by using a card or cheque number, the identity of fraudulent users can easily be uncovered. More complex searches can also be implemented to produce multiple results. For example, a search based on a particular staff member and the ‘no sale’ openings of the till could uncover the reason behind the missing cash at the end of a shift. In the hospitality industry, a search based on an operator and a particular drink that has suffered ‘leakage’ may result in the discovery of multiple drinks being served to an individual but payment for only one being received and recorded – known in the game as the ‘sweetheart’ deal.
POS and surveillance software have both evolved to the point where surveillance has progressed from an expensive but generalised solution, to an affordable system that can analyse individual transactions and pinpoint actions accurately and unequivocally. The ‘deterrence factor’, quick dispute resolution, and the ability to produce clear evidence for disciplinary action have resulted in greater business efficiencies and therefore increased profits for business owners.
And, for POS resellers, surveillance has become an easily pitched, cost-effective management tool with a clear business objective and demonstrable return on investment.