According to the 2014 Global Retail Theft Barometer released late last fall, losses from shrink cost retailers around the world more than $128 billion in 2013. In the United States, employee theft was the largest source of shrink-related sources at 42.9 percent. While this study applied to traditional brick-and-mortar stores, retailers face similar loss prevention threats in their distribution centers, which can vary widely in size – ranging from 200,000 to 1.2 million square feet in space – and employ anywhere from several hundred to several thousand employees.
Traditional Methods and Technologies
Walkthrough or handheld metal detectors are the only enhanced screening method that security personnel at many of these facilities currently have available to them. Unfortunately, both versions of this technology have several limitations. First and foremost, as their name implies, a metal detector is only capable of recognizing the presence of metal objects on people as they pass through a scanner or as a guard uses a wand to try and pinpoint the source of an alarm. The problem with using metal detectors as a primary defense against loss prevention is that they don’t provide enough information to help security personnel make a well-informed decision as to whether they should pull someone out of line for further screening.
In many cases, the high-end merchandise that a distribution center wants to prevent from being stolen either doesn’t have any metal in its construction or, if it does, may not have enough to trigger the metal detector. Also, if a metal detector alarms, there is no way to know exactly what the detector has sensed on that person. It could be something as harmless as a body piercing, or it could be a new, state-of-art smartphone or tablet being processed through the facility. There is just no way of knowing unless the subject is more heavily scrutinized, which potentially opens up the company to the potential liability of being involved in a wrongful discharge or discrimination lawsuit.
Another tool that some distribution centers have at their disposal is video surveillance. However, video footage is typically used for evidentiary purposes to review an incident after the fact. Even if a facility had someone continuously monitoring cameras, chances are pretty slim that they would be able to actually catch someone stealing.
Finally, a lot of organizations have their security officers carry out good old-fashioned visual “bumps and lumps” checks to see if hidden merchandise may be protruding from under a person’s clothing. Facilities may have security personnel conduct bag checks using a wooden dowel to make sure things haven’t been stashed away in someone’s purse or backpack. These types of screening methods are ad hoc to say the least; at worst, they are largely ineffective and open the organization up to potential litigation. Fortunately, there is technology available that can make the screening of workers in distribution centers both quicker and more precise.
A New Use Case for Infrared Imaging
Infrared imaging technology has been around for a number of years in the military and industrial industries and has predominantly been used to detect objects at a distance. However, that same imaging technology can now be used in close quarters to detect items hidden on a human body. And unlike metal detectors, the taking of an infrared image enables security personnel to see the item they’re dealing with – whether it is merchandise that has been taken from inventory, a weapon, or any type of contraband that someone is attempting to smuggle in or out of the facility.
Another benefit of leveraging infrared imaging technology for screening people is that it is material agnostic. Since infrared cameras display very small temperature differences they can provide the user with real-time, high-resolution visual images of whatever a person may be hiding on their body. This ranges from items such as clothing, pharmaceuticals, plastics, wood, gemstones and ceramics.
Infrared imaging solutions for loss prevention are available in two different product types: A full-body scanning portal and a portable handheld device, which looks similar to a radar gun. The full-body scanner can be used either in a randomized fashion – where a certain number of employees are sent through it as they exit the facility – or it can be used to further screen those who may have initially triggered an alarm from a metal detector. The handheld imager can be attached to the side of a walkthrough metal detector to help quickly disposition alarms or as a powerful random portable screener which can be deployed in problem areas of the facility or in high value areas. The key is being able to screen employees before they leave the area.
While most people may envision this type of infrared solution as being similar to a full-body scanner at an airport, the differences between them are quite stark. Both millimeter wave technology, which is used for people screening at airports, and backscatter X-ray, which was previously used for people screening and is now only used for baggage checks, have received their fair share of media criticism. Health advocates widely panned the use of backscatter X-ray technology over concerns about the trace amounts of radiation the technology emits. Meanwhile, privacy groups decried the vivid images of the human body generated by millimeter wave scanning portals, an issue that was addressed when the Transportation Security Administration rolled out a software update that turned the human body images into cartoon-like avatars. The problem is that both technologies lost the ability to actually provide a visual image of what was detected.
Neither of these problems has to be considered when deploying Infrared imaging solutions. In fact, infrared scanning technology could even help organizations avoid potential complaints of profiling and discrimination in the workplace.
In the example used above regarding someone who is pulled out of a security line because their body piercing set off a metal detector, using an infrared scanning solution would allow the facility’s security and/or loss prevention personnel to do a quick scan and send the person on their way. This avoids a physical search, which could lead to a lawsuit from a worker disgruntled over the fact that they were embarrassed for being singled out for a search. The key words to avoiding legal issues are probable cause, which is what the visual image provides.
Conversely, if the facility only had metal detectors, security would be faced with the less-than-ideal choice of either searching the person – taking the chance that nothing may be found – or just letting the subject go to avoid potential negative consequences. More times than not, organizations choose the latter option. But if they could conduct a less invasive type of search, they could rest easier knowing that products weren’t making their way out the door.
That’s not to say, however, that metal detectors have no place in the overall security program of a distribution center. Trying to scan an entire workforce as they make their way into and out of a facility using an infrared portal or handheld device is simply not feasible, as these solutions are not designed for high-volume screening. Infrared technology can be used in conjunction with metal detectors and other solutions as a way of providing enhanced screening when it is needed.
With such an increased emphasis on the user intuitiveness of security solutions today, it’s also paramount that a device, regardless of its function, be easy to use. Infrared solutions – be it a full-body scanning portal or handheld imager – are no exception. They are just as easy to deploy in a distribution center as a metal detector. For example, with an infrared full-body scanner, the scanning process is completely automated for the user. All they need to do is press one button once the person is positioned properly. The image provided is very similar in appearance to a photo negative. All the features you see with your eyes: buttons, pockets, seams, etc., are visible on the IR image. This makes identifying foreign objects easier and faster to analyze. For an infrared handheld imager, the process is just as easy. The security person holds the device over an area of interest on the subject being scanned and pulls the trigger, automatically generating an image.
Given the ever-increasing problem of employee theft combined with a litigation-happy society, retailers cannot afford not to have some type of enhanced screening technology in place within their distribution centers. And thinking outside-the-box with infrared imaging may be a facility’s best option for addressing both of these issues in a single solution.