Somebody IS Watching

In an age of cameras on nearly every street corner, toll booth and ATM, the coming of interactive audio and visual systems at retail is hardly a surprise. What may surprise some, however, is the way in which such systems can transcend security and provide what some might suggest amounts to a whole new layer of management.

And yet, did someone say Big Brother?

“It’s a little bit of Big Brother,” said Andy Salcedo, director of operations for Kent Kwik Convenience Stores based in Midland, Texas. “We cover that during training—why we have the systems and what we use them for. We tell employees that we certainly don’t have anyone sitting in a room watching them 24 hours a day, but that they may, in fact, be under observation at any time.”

Associates have come to realize they’re being watched for security reasons and evaluated. But in a somewhat lighter way they are also being managed remotely. Interactive security systems that produce so-called “intelligent video” systems are becoming more prevalent in the industry both as a means for security and reducing shrink.

“Where oversight is happening, either from a perception or a reality standpoint, your people tend to perform more admirably,” said Sean Foley, executive vice president for Westec Interactive in West Des Moines, Iowa, which specializes in interactive remote monitoring.

And that’s the key for c-store operators. Employees are asked to work hard, but they often will push it to a new level when they feel they’re being watched.

Kent Kwik’s interactive system “gives us the ability to watch our stores 24 hours a day without letting them know we’re watching them,” Salcedo said. “The security is there to help deter robberies and things like that, which it has. But it’s also there to help keep the honest employees honest, and the ones that think about doing something, well, maybe they won’t do it.”

They’d better not try. The system lets management watch them in real time, tell them they’re doing a good job or take note of the fact that that they didn’t ring up an item correctly. For example, if a customer bought a 12-pack of beer and they only rang up a six-pack, the cameras can tell.

New Level of Security
“The difference between interactive and regular, conventional silent alarm systems is major,” explained Dale Sides, vice president of maintenance and surveillance for E-Z Mart Convenience Stores Inc., a 312-store chain in Texarkana, Texas. “Let’s just say you’ve got a third-shift clerk there by himself. In the conventional alarm service you have the panic button—the alarm company gets the signal, they notify the police and they head out there.”

With an interactive system, “we can hit the button for a lot of different things and (E-Z Mart’s provider, Westec) automatically looks in,” Sides said. “They can see what’s happening and they’re able to assess the situation.”

In the case of a robbery, which is what the silent alarms are used for, Westec personnel are able to give the police department an accurate description of “who the bad guy is, what he’s wearing, the whole nine yards, so the police are not going in blind,” Sides said.

The added bonus, and what is so cutting edge about interactive security, is the ability for a store associate who suspects a theft just occurred to quickly contact an interactive video surveillance provider and have them immediately brought to the location by way of two-way audio and video. It addresses the situation in a way that keeps the associate completely separate from the incident.

Another chain, Circle K, uses an interactive security system in more than 300 stores. Jack Conn, the chain’s Southeastern regional director of loss prevention, recalled an incident in which an epileptic employee working alone one night began feeling ill and, sensing the onset of a seizure, locked the door and had just enough time to send an alert to the command center. “The monitors could see what was happening,” said Conn, “and they immediately called the local police and the EMS. They came, broke down the door and probably saved her life.”

Wave of the Future
Kent introduced the system about four years ago, and today has it operating in 16 of its 30 locations, with four more due to come online by fall and the entire chain by the end of next year. ROI has admittedly been “a little bit hard to figure out,” Salcedo conceded, “but generally speaking, our stores that have the system have better inventory audits than the stores that don’t.”

Installation cost Kent about $10,000 per store for basic setups. “We may do more cameras than a lot of other places do,” Salcedo said. “We put cameras outside in the stores that are only open 18 hours to help deter breaking in or vandalism, even though we’ve got alarm systems at the units.”

Kent has opted for more expensive packages at some of its truck stops, which have additional cameras at the diesel aisle. At such locations the cost can reach $14,500.

When gas is $4 per gallon, or $5 for diesel, “you’ve got employees who are hurting more now than, say, two or three years ago,” Salcedo pointed out. “The cameras are a useful deterrence.”

Kent hasn’t had any problems with its managers, but cameras are stationed inside managers’ offices nonetheless.

Salcedo feels that interactive systems like the one Kent now uses are “definitely the wave of future. We’ve had too many instances in the past when we’ve had an incident we wanted to watch on video tape and it seemed that, just that particular day, the tape was not recording. I have not had one incident since we’ve put these cameras in which it has not recorded properly.”

“Never Alone”
As time goes by, the cameras are becoming commonplace to a new generation of younger employees who accept and understand they’re being watched.

“What we like about it is it always gives that clerk somebody with them there 24/7,” Sides said. “They’re never alone.”

And so at 3 a.m. an employee who needs to go stock the cooler simply “hits the button and tells the Westec people, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in the cooler for the next 15 to 20 minutes, can you kind of watch the store for us?’ They will stay online and watch the store. If a customer comes in they greet him.”

E-Z Mart stores’ security setup includes four, eight or 16 cameras depending on a particular store’s size and configuration. The system provides “a lot of neat stuff for us,” Sides added. “The clerk’s got to go to the restroom? He hits the button.”

But what he identified as the “most important” aspect of the system is that “if we have a store full of people and a single clerk trying to ring up customers, you’ve got an extra set of eyes watching every aisle. That’s where we are seeing the biggest return.”

Sides doesn’t view Westec as another layer of management. “I would say they’re always there to lend support,” he said. “I think the best benefit is the fact that you’ve got somebody around the clock to be there with them. I’m not saying you need two people on every shift. I‘m saying that when something happens and you don’t know what’s going on, you’ve got someone to talk to instead of just hitting the alarm and having the police show up.

“It’s not like VHS. We can enhance the video. We can e-mail the images to police. In fact, we can have them on the squad car’s computer almost before it gets to the store.”

That alone is a nice security feature for any c-store.  

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