Safety Zone: The Latest and Greatest in Retail Security Systems

Retailers might not like to contemplate the prospect of being robbed or burglarized, but they need to think about these crimes—because criminals are. According to the ­Jewelers’ Security Alliance (JSA), jewelry retailers in the United States lost more than $85 million in 2011 because of criminals, an increase of 5.3 percent over 2010. The number of on-premises robberies soared by 19.7 percent.

Despite these sobering statistics, security experts say many retailers are under-­protected. They opt for cheap alarm services and last-generation analog surveillance systems, or eschew cameras entirely. 

“Even though jewelers have the most risk [among retailers] in terms of being robbed or suffering bodily harm, they spend the least amount of money,” says Michael Spring, owner of PriVID Eye Security Systems in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Most of them just do the minimum.” Even if the crime is a burglary—a break-in with no threat of bodily harm—as opposed to a robbery, which involves a threat on your life, you want to be protected.

Top-notch alarms, surveillance, and showcase access devices don’t come cheap, but they are worthy investments. New technology is just more effective at preventing and solving crimes.

Alarm Systems

“No alarm system has ever captured a burglar,” says David Sexton, vice president of loss prevention at Neenah, Wis.–based Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co. An alarm’s value is measured by how fast it detects a crime in progress and alerts the retailer and law enforcement.

“Reliable response is absolutely critical.Whenever possible, get a UL-certified central station monitoring service. They can dispatch their own guards,” he says, to investigate a possible break-in. UL stands for Underwriters Laboratories, the nonprofit that rates the safety and security of everything from your home extension cords to high-voltage electrical equipment.

DGA Security Systems’ GemControl key fob in action

Until recently, the gold standard in alarms was to create a secure communication channel via telephone lines. This kind of service was only available in big cities until the widespread adoption of broadband Internet combined with cellular technology, which is used as a backup, made this kind of security available everywhere. With this line security in place, a continuous stream of electronic signals is sent between the store and an alarm company’s central monitoring station. If the signal isn’t transmitted, this could indicate the line was cut by burglars.

“One of the big innovations that we’ve awaited for a very long time was the availability of IP or Internet-based line security solutions,” Sexton says. “You see the IP-based solutions marching forward at a very aggressive rate.”

Equally as important is how frequently the alarm system “checks in” with the station via two-way electronic communication. The best systems bounce signals back and forth every two or three minutes. Since a signal interruption indicates a possible break-in, more check-ins mean a more effective alarm.

Gary Wasserman, vice president at Wexler Insurance in Coral Gables, Fla., warns that some alarm companies offer central station monitoring but don’t check the signal often enough to be effective. Instead of two or three minutes, as many as several days could pass between signal exchanges, which gives a burglar ample time to commit a crime. There really isn’t a way for customers to know how often the central station and the unit at their store are communicating, which is why insurance pros say those UL standards are so important. UL certification includes standards for the frequency of these transmissions, so without a UL certificate, you could have an alarm that’s “asleep on the job.”

“These jewelers aren’t getting UL-certified systems,” he says. “The equipment is, but it isn’t being operated to UL standards.” Verify that any alarm system you install is UL certified, he recommends, since it may be a requirement of your insurance policy.

Better availability of central station monitoring systems has prompted some jewelers to install two separate systems, says ­PriVID’s Spring. “We do a lot of redundancy alarm stuff, the thought being that if my alarm is in there, we know nothing about other alarms”—an extra layer of security to thwart “inside jobs.”

There are two main cost components for an alarm system: The cost for the equipment and setup, and the monthly service and monitoring charge. Both vary tremendously, depending on the size of your business, what’s located around it, how many doors and windows—“access points” in industry lingo—you have, and other factors. But for a ballpark figure, “I would say a typical jewelry store installation could be in the $5,000 range,” says Scott Adams, vice president of Mutual Central Alarm Services in New York City. “That would include complete perimeter protection and protection of a vault or safe.”

Surveillance Systems

As with consumer cameras, evolution in digital technology has ushered in rapid advancements in recording and storage devices. But Spring says he still has jewelers asking for analog cameras. They may be cheaper, but they’re probably not going to help nab a thief. Even though digital technology now allows a user to zoom in on an image created by an analog camera, an image taken with an analog camera will be pixelated—and of very little use for identification.

“One of the challenges is getting clearer pictures so you can zoom in,” says Allan Markoff, president of New York Security Systems Inc., in Middletown, N.Y. The latest technology, he says, is “ultra high-resolution or IP cameras” with 1080p resolution—comparable to a good-quality TV. Retailers also have the option of deciding how many frames per second they want their cameras to capture. Real-time recording is 30 frames per second. The higher the number of frames, the better equipped someone will be to spot sleight-of-hand thefts or product switches.

The frames per second, camera resolution, and number of cameras all contribute to the amount of space needed to store this data on a computer. “One terabyte, 1,000 gigabytes, was almost impossible five years ago,” Markoff says. “Now it’s commonplace.” A terabyte can hold video from 16 to 32 cameras for up to 60 or 90 days, he says. Most retailers hang on to their footage for at least a month, because thefts that involve stolen or fraudulent credit cards may not be apparent until weeks later. Beyond that, the decision depends on how much the owner wants to pay to store data. Since the amount of digital storage space needed is still sizable, surveillance vendors recommend using motion sensors to start recording, so valuable storage space won’t be filled with uneventful hours.

Retailers also need to decide if they want to store this information at their stores or use a remote storage service. Remote storage is more expensive but has many advantages, says Stanley Oppenheim, president of DGA Security Systems in New York City. “If it’s on-site, it could be stolen or intentionally destroyed,” he says. Or it could fail if the person tasked with maintaining the system doesn’t do so.

How many cameras a store needs and their placement varies tremendously with its size, layout, and location, such as whether it is freestanding or in a high-rise, mall, or retail strip. A small store might be able to get away with a few cameras; the biggest showrooms have dozens.

You’ll want digital “eyes” on your entrances and exits (including loading or service doors), showcases holding high-value merchandise such as diamonds or Rolex watches, and your safe and repair areas. Ideally, jewelers should have some cameras in plain sight and others concealed. JSA president John Kennedy says a visible camera is a powerful deterrent, but a hidden camera puts an element of surprise on the retailer’s side—a criminal casing the store can’t avoid a camera if he doesn’t know it’s there.

Technological advances also allow jewelers to view recordings remotely. If a motion sensor is tripped when the store is closed, the store owner, security director, or alarm company can log on and see what’s happening in real time.

As with alarm systems, the cost of surveillance systems varies considerably, based on the size of your store and the amount of equipment. “On a 2,000-square-foot showroom, there could easily be six to 12 cameras,” says Spring. “But a digital camera can replace a couple of analog cameras, which lowers your installation and wiring costs.” A five-megapixel camera costs in the neighborhood of $1,200 to $1,500, he says. “So if you have four cameras, you’re at six grand,” he says. “You could be at $10,000”— including installation and data storage—“when all’s said and done.”

Showcase Access

New electronic key cards that behave like supercharged hotel-room keys give retailers an unprecedented degree of control over their merchandise. “There are showcases today that use electronic keys to enter so there’s a trail,” Kennedy says. “You always know which employee is going into which showcase,” he says.

DGA’s Oppenheim says that his company’s ­GemControl system is used by dozens of major jewelry firms. When a display case is opened, a sensor on the case “reads” the electronic fob and sends the information to DGA’s central station for verification—a process that takes place in less than a second.

The system lets the store owner set varying levels of security, allowing different employees access to specific showcases or on certain days only, for example. Owners can get reports tracking which employees accessed which cases over a certain time period. It can alert retailers with a chime if a case is left unlocked and can lock down all the cases to thwart a theft attempt. Alas, a top-notch showcase security system like this is an investment; although the specifics vary by client, Oppenheim says a 25-drawer system could cost $25,000 to $30,000.

And the future may bring still more enhancements. The system “reached its current level of sophistication just three to four years ago,” he says. “Again, it required the Internet” to turn those features into reality.