Business Writing Sample #8: Technology Writing

By Mike Johnson
July 95 Convenience Store Decisions
(Trade magazine for the convenience store industry)


He was the "Harry Houdini" of cigarette vendors. But instead of skillfully manipulating straight jackets and impervious locks, this talented fellow worked his magical illusions with practiced right hand and a ball point pen.

Just after the store manager signed an invoice for 70 cartons of cigarettes, "Houdini" would tear off the top copy in a smooth, one-handed motion, while simultaneously -- and almost invisibly -- adding a pen slash to the already-signed invoice.

The unwitting store manager had just paid for 170 cartons of smokes -- and the vendor had just received $1,500 in free product to sell to cash customers later that day. Had it not been for a video-recorded review of the vendor's nimble fingers, "Houdini," might still be out there working his sleight of hand.

Horror stories such as these are common in the surveillance industry, says Steve Champeau, Senior Vice President & General Manager for Eden-Prairie, MN-based Alarmex, a division of Checkpoint Systems that provides burglar and fire alarm systems, point of sale monitoring and CCTV recording systems.

"Having the information to point to the problem provides the biggest bang for the buck," he says. "Using a combination of deterrents provides internal theft prevention, improved store safety, elimination of staged "slip & falls" and definitely gets a return on investment."

CCTV: Peace Of Mind From A Piece Of Equipment

Older closed-circuit television systems did little more than create the "illusion of control." Assuming the lighting was just right, the camera focused and on target, and the recorder actually turned on, you still had to wade through hours of recordings to find the correct sequence, and then struggle with grainy black & white images to make an identification.

Today's color CCTV system options now include: lenses that auto-adjust to light changes; vivid color resolution for clear identification of people, products and cash; point-of-sale connections that lay cash register transaction information right onto the video image; software that "red-flags" suspicious transactions for quick and easy review; and multiple camera switching systems that record full-screen images on one time-lapse VCR.

Like other electronics, quality continues to improve and prices continue to drop. Quality time-lapse VCR prices have dropped in half over the past five years and can be purchased for about $1,200. Complete CCTV systems can be had for as little as $2,000 and range upward to over $20,000.

The most exciting systems are those that provide remote viewing. Sensorlink, a system from Sensormatic Electronics Corporation, allows retail managers to "visit" their stores without ever leaving the office. Sensorlink permits black & white or color transmission of video signals over conventional or high-speed telephone networks. By calling up the PC in the desired location, an operator can switch between the location's pre-installed cameras and command them to pan, tilt or zoom -- providing the exact view desired.

"The cameras rotate 360 degrees and actually walk the store for you," says Donald Taylor, Manager of Strategic Market Development for Sensormatic. Since data is transmitted via phone lines, it makes no difference if the monitored store is across the street -- or across the country.

Depending on the equipment, image size, color and resolution, updated video pictures can arrive as fast as 3-4 seconds after they occur. Because the SpeedDome cameras are mounted in smoke-colored domes, employees or customers at the store do not know where the cameras are being focused -- or whether they're being observed. This application helps detect internal and external theft, provides merchandising information (Is that new layout assignment completed? Are the correct floor displays up?) and answers operational concerns (How many people on duty? What about store conditions?).

Less expensive options include video motion detectors that can be set to cue the VCR to record whenever movement is detected within a closed store, cooler or backroom. Access control systems provide an electronic audit trail of store opening and closing times, by issuing each employee an electronically encoded photo ID card.

Exceptional Deterrence

To combat a more serious source of theft -- sales that are unrung or under-rung by employees -- Sensormatic's point-of-sale exception monitoring (POS/EM) has a proprietary software interface that links cash registers to video surveillance systems.

As you watch the purchase on video, you also see what was rung on the register. If an exception occurs, such as a void, no-sale or under-ring, POS/EM instantly logs the time, date, register number, associate number and the actual transaction for review. If the VCR is not in a constant record mode, POS/EM automatically signals the nearest camera to record the event on videotape with an overlay of the actual register receipt. Simultaneously, POS/EM prints a hard copy report for management to review.

"If the average c-store does $1 million in sales a year, with average retail shrink being 2%, they're losing about $20,000 a year," explains Taylor. "Statistics show that about 85% of this is internal and external theft. With systems costing $5,000-$10,000, it's very possible to pay back your investment inside of a year."

Fred Hanover, director of operations for National Guardian's Silent Watchman Division, focuses on the deterrent factor. "Our philosophy is to let people know they're being filmed," he says. "We want to deter crime in the first place."

That doesn't mean Hanover won't tackle internal theft after the fact. His company also supplies covert, mobile equipment to help nail down problem stores. "Our experience is that problem locations don't remain problem locations," he says. "The problems are usually tied to employees."

To verify the honesty of store managers, many companies offer pin-hole cameras disguised as sprinkler heads, smoke detectors or clocks that can be covertly installed in cash offices, back rooms or sales areas. If that equipment doesn't do the trick, some companies ratchet the technology even higher. Alarmex VP Steve Champeau recalls capturing a dishonest pharmacist who circumnavigated the surveillance cameras by turning off the lights in the cash office.

When the client informed Alarmex, Champeau's team installed a special infrared camera. Despite the darkness, they surprised the pharmacist with video of his latest heist. Special "surveillance kits" for loss prevention managers eager to crack the more difficult cases are available from Alarmex and other manufacturers.

Southland Corporation has signed up with National Guardian's Silent Watchman Division, and over the past 18 months has installed surveillance systems in 312 of its 430 7-Eleven stores in Florida, with plans to add 80 more in the next 60 days.

Loss prevention manager Stan Sexton says the cameras were installed not so much for shortage control as robbery prevention.

"We did it for the safety of our employees and customers," he says, explaining the monitors displayed right in the front of the stores. "We want to let the bad guy see that he's going to be on video."

He justifies the expense with both tangible and intangible results. Tangible results include fewer robberies ("They've declined for three years in a row now," he says), more captures and convictions, reduced liability and the ability to review questionable incidents. One customer claiming a bogus "slip & fall" was recently exposed. "The videotape shows it didn't happen," reports Sexton.

Intangible results include reduced employee turnover and increased customer comfort levels. "They like the deterrent -- they feel safer," he says. To bolster that feeling, Southland just supplied the stores with personal protection alarms for employees to wear on their belts.

Ultimate Protection

The ultimate in employee safety while deterring robberies, reducing liability and adding peace of mind both cashiers and customers, there are cashier enclosures. These bullet-resistant systems can be incorporated into new store plans or added to existing locations. They're constructed to allow transactions through a sliding window during daytime hours and through a "deal tray" during overnight hours. Stores are also wired to allow cashiers to electronically lock store entry doors overnight, if desired.

"We work with corporate security managers to set specifications," explains Fred Gebaur, Business Development Manager for Insulgard Corporation, a manufacturer of enclosures. "We say the system deters crime, not customers. Customers increasingly accept them -- they see stores with enclosures as a safer shopping location."

Enclosure systems have certified ratings of Level I (stops up to a 9mm bullet) and level III (stops up to a .44 caliber bullet). Level I systems are made of a 1 -inch thick clear acrylic plastic. The Level II systems are 1 5/16-inch thick poly carbonate that is actually four separate sheets laminated together.

Basic systems run $5,000-$10,000 for Level I protection. The price for Level III protection can be as much as 100% greater. Insulgard recently added a new product, with Level II protection (stops up to a .357 bullet). It's made of one sheet of 1 3/8-inch thick acrylic, and costs 10%-15% more than Level I enclosures.

Even employees protected by these systems are trained to fully cooperate with any robbery attempt, just as if the enclosure wasn't there. Their value is in preventing those senseless killings where the cashier cooperates fully and then is shot anyway.

The Book on Safety

To deter robberies in the first place, it pays to remember that the thief's motives have not changed.

"They still rob for dollars," says 7-Eleven's Stan Sexton. "The less they get, the less they'll come around."


The "Crown Jewel" of Security Systems

A remote monitoring system that can establish audio and video contact with a store within 20 seconds has helped Crown Central Petroleum reduce robberies, including internal theft, by 60%. Ed Parker, manager for corporate security for the Baltimore-based chain of 355 stores, says Crown Central has reduced cash shorts by $476/month per store, reduced employee turnover by 35% and shoplifting by 40%. The system has also helped it monitor sales of age-restricted products and defeat fraudulent injury claims, and has had a positive impact on its premise security insurance, Parker says.

Though attendants can dial into any of the 135 stores currently on the system, Parker says Crown Central "tries not to be 'Big Brother' with it. We want to establish rapport between store personnel and the monitors." Crown Central goes so far as to require all monitors to work in a c-store during second and third shifts. "We didn't want our people at the monitoring center to trivialize any incoming call," Parker says. The system generates an activation summary (how often the store activated the system; Parker says there's a distinct correlation between how often a system is used and how effective it is) and incident reports that include complete narratives.

Sidebar #2

The Time-Lapse VCR:
A Key Component Of Your Surveillance Team

Two points are critical to extending the life span of a time-lapse video recorder: regular maintenance and using correct tapes.

"Our machines have an industrial chassis and a one year warranty," says Domenic Isola, Senior Sales Manager for Gyyr, a division of Odetics. "If you let the machine run all the time and don't do a thing to it, it has about an 18-month life expectancy. If you clean the heads regularly and attend to annual refurbishment that's needed, I've seen units go 15 years."

Use the best video tapes you can -- the manufacturer will recommend several. "There's three things to look for in a quality tape," says Isola. "The degree of oxide shedding, elasticity and lubrication. The heads are different on these VCRs and cheaper tapes will cause problems."

Ed Fuller, Manager of Retail Security for SuperAmerica, agrees. "Because of a large investment in your system, it doesn't pay to scrimp on the quality of tape," he says. Fuller also recommends setting up a tape archive system with a tape for each day of the week, saving enough history to cover events you may need to review later.

And don't jump in without doing some research. "Talk to people who have a system already before you spend money," he advises. "You can't just slap up any camera."

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