Retail Merchandiser: Loss Prevention: The Future is Here

April 1, 2011 | Coverage

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Intelligent video software platforms are breathing new life into tried-and-true loss prevention video surveillance tools.

Imagine the video surveillance system in your stores wasn’t simply put in place with a hope and a prayer to deter thieves, but rather as a tool to help you solve crimes, protect your assets, and grow your business.

What if your surveillance cameras could alert you the moment they came offline, for whatever reason, or could be linked to your point-of-sale (POS) system and would be searchable, not just by date and time, but also by transaction? Take that a step further: what if you could enter the image of a known shoplifter or quick-change artist and search for an individual or search your footage for specific objects based on size, shape, and color?

Looking through days of raw footage would become as easy as typing a query into Google. In just seconds, you’d have a list of highly relevant results to sift through. Any loss prevention professional can get behind that kind of convenience.

But such video surveillance software would surely require a huge investment, an especially talented IT department, and a patient organization to wait years for the system to pay for itself. Right?

Not so, says Aisling MacRunnels, chief marketing officer for 3VR. Based in San Francisco, 3VR is a video intelligence platform that’s brought about a coming-of-age for video surveillance technology, making what many retailers think is futuristic technology a reality today.

But maybe the best feature of 3VR’s intelligent video software platform is that it is user-friendly. MacRunnels said it’s delivered as a virtually plug-and-play system, with appliance with software included. In fact, she said the system works with almost any existing security camera configuration, so customers don’t need to make any big changes. That’s why customers repeatedly report that they can get the system up and running in less than a day and that it pays for itself in just weeks.

“Retailers and all security professionals have been using video surveillance for decades, but only now can they make that raw footage truly actionable thanks to intelligent video software platforms like ours,” MacRunnels said. “This technology is truly ready for prime time after spending years in development with retail customers around the world and proving its value time and again.”

Searchable video footage

3VR was founded in 2002 as analytic software and search algorithms for text were maturing. Rather than only pulling keywords from the title of articles, Google and its competitors were digging deep into content to find increasingly relevant results. The team at 3VR wondered, if Google can do it for text, why not for video?

In the last nine years, the company worked closely with customers in the retail industry and beyond to integrate data from external data systems like POS, so a camera covering your cash register immediately links a transaction number with a date, time, and video footage. Footage recorded on this platform is then searchable through tags like these.

Employee theft is a good example of a significant retail shrinkage problem that searchable video content can solve. MacRunnels said according to the Global Retail Theft Barometer 2010 published by the Center for Retail Research, shoplifters, on average, steal $196 worth of goods per occurrence. But employees who steal make off with, on average, $2,000 worth of goods.

One of the most vulnerable points for employee theft is at the return counter, where employees can register a returned product that was never purchased in the first place and pocket the cash. Before, there was almost nothing retailers could do about it. “We’ve had customers say they haven’t even been tracking certain types of shrinkage like employee theft because it was impossible to do anything to address it,” MacRunnels said.

But it’s possible now, she explained, thanks to products like 3VR’s Customer Not Present, which retailers can use to search for any recorded transaction where there was no customer present in the video footage. These kinds of searchable data tags that are making video footage richer and more useful than ever before.

“The human mind doesn’t have the capacity to sift through that amount of raw footage; studies have repeatedly proven we start to miss things very quickly,” MacRunnels said. “So despite all those cameras, loss prevention teams in the retail sector had a very limited ability to solve crimes.”

Solve, protect, grow

MacRunnels said 3VR likes to explain what intelligent video software platforms can do by saying it helps customers solve crimes, protect their places and people, and grow their business. Loss prevention specialists in the retail industry have been focused mostly on solving crimes, but she said that’s only the beginning of what retailers can do with this comprehensive tool.

For instance, one of the products 3VR offers includes a system health-monitoring program, which can alert retailers immediately if a camera goes down for any reason. Retailers can also use this tool to double check all their cameras are pointing in the right direction, covering the right field of vision, and more from one centralized location.

The company’s platform also allows retailers to set up alerts, so if there is a return with no customer present, for example, security can be alerted immediately and intervene. Or, if someone who has caused problems before enters a store, the platform can recognize his or her face and create an automated alert. The platform allows retailers to be proactive in protecting their businesses for the first time.

But the way retailers are using intelligent video software to grow retail businesses is what MacRunnels said could be the most exciting part her work.

“Our platform protects their business from fraud and enables them to quickly handle any problems, but that same platform also allows them to offer an exceptional level of customer service and a new customer experience that gives them a competitive edge,” MacRunnels said.

Other retail customers are using 3VR’s platform to track the performance of new display configurations or the attention certain promotions receive. With the platform, the video footage can be categorized by how many people moved and when they moved toward a particular display, how long they stayed there, and if they bought something from it.

TMobile is a big American 3VR customer, and MacRunnels said it was one of the first to use an intelligent video platform to grow its business.

“TMobile’s loss prevention was very forward thinking in recognizing that our product would not only help it achieve its loss prevention goals, but also provide new opportunities,” she explained.

Currently, 3VR is integrating its platform with TMobile’s third-party product tracking infrastructure, the security system of cords attached to the phones on display in its stores. Those cords also provide data about how often and for how long each phone is held by a potential customer, but linking that data with video footage allows TMobile to harvest even richer data about who is picking up which phones.

“We’re not talking about personally identifiable information; we’re talking about how many men versus women hold which types of phones for how long or how many professionals coming in after five o’clock are interested in which types of phones,” MacRunnels said.

She added that since then, 3VR has done extensive work integrating its platform with third party systems, whether they are homegrown or purchased from other companies. That means 3VR not only has the most sophisticated analytics for searching footage, but also has the experience of linking video data with all kinds of external systems and analytics.

3VR customers are also developing creative new ways to use this technology all on their own. One of 3VR’s customers in Australia uses the platform to track the percentage of store visitors who make a purchase as part of its compensation plan for its employees. In addition, retail property owners are using the 3VR platform to track foot traffic to more accurately value individual storefronts.

They can do this in part, MacRunnels said, because 3VR is devoted to furthering the development of this cutting edge technology.

“There is no other company in the video field that has done as much integration with third party systems as we have,” she said. “We are a true software development company, with the best of Silicon Valley work on our products, and our goal is to create a very rich, flexible platform.”

When you think about the level of integration that exists in every other facet of our lives and of our work as retailers, MacRunnels said, video surveillance still has so much potential. The development of this field will come from retailers experimenting and thinking of new, creative ways their existing surveillance footage could be mined for more information and from companies like 3VR that listen to those ideas and make them possible.

“Video surveillance technology has come leaps and bounds in the last decade, and it’s important that retailers know what’s possible now,” said MacRunnels. “But it’s as important that they know the sky is truly the limit for this technology.”

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