Sounds of Security: Expanding Use Cases for Audio in Asset Protection


Images may be the heart of retail surveillance solutions, but as evidenced by an expanding number of creative use cases, leveraging the power of sound and audio can add a valuable layer to asset protection.

One example is Goodwill Industries, where donations are the lifeblood of the mission and critical to funding its important work. But for that to happen, donations need to make it into their sales pipeline, and items left at donation drop-off points need to stay there until employees can collect them.

Unfortunately, theft at drop-off locations can be commonplace, especially when members of the public fail to equate Goodwill’s mission with its thrift store items. When that connection doesn’t exist, items at donation drop-off points look like someone’s unwanted junk, free for the taking.

Carlos Garcia
Digital Partners

Before he accepted his job as director of loss prevention for Goodwill Industries of South Texas in 2011, Carlos Garcia had a memorable experience when dropping off a donation. “I left the item and in my rearview mirror, as I’m driving away, I saw someone else putting it on their truck,” he said. “I knew that dilemma was something I was going to have to deal with.”

To break that cycle, several Goodwill territories have implemented two-way talking cameras at risky donation points. Triggered by motion detection, a pre-recorded message plays to alert individuals that they are under observation, encouraging good behavior. Where implemented, LP directors report that the system successfully engages individuals and discourages after hour “drop and shopping,” where people leave one donation bag and take home three. Implementing the talking cameras and other creative use of integrated video has been critical to the success of their LP departments, they report.

Audio has played a key role in remote surveillance for decades. Long ago, for example, Starbucks implemented interactive video and audio components at each point of sale and in each manager’s office in a ‘protect the cash’ monitoring strategy to keep a closer eye on store openings, closings, and cash transactions.

Hired contractors monitored video and audio feeds from stores and interacted with staff at the beginning and end of each business day. In initial tests involving 20 outfitted ‘at-risk’ stores versus 20 demographically matched control stores, sales at those with video and audio feeds saw sales rise eight percent, compared to less than two percent at control stores. Restaurant inventory, retail inventory, and cash counts all improved in test stores while deteriorating slightly in the control group of stores.

Though less dramatic than the increase in sales and drop in shrink, reps said they realized other benefits in test stores: reduction in false alarm fines; a better defensive posture against violent crime; and a retail staff said that indicated in surveys that they felt safer knowing they could be seen and heard.

More recently, the expansion of analytics into the audio realm, with cameras becoming capable of recognizing sounds that might indicate a crime in progress, has given retailers intriguing new options for preventing and responding to break-ins and other property crimes like vandalism. Just as smart cameras can now see when trouble might be brewing, software algorithms provide the ability to hear breaking glass, shouting, or a gathering crowd. Systems can respond as they do to visual anomalies, by pivoting toward the sound, generating an alarm, or triggering other desired responses.

Audio can also help retailers meet their number one priority: the safety and security of associates and customers, made possible through networked security technology.

Hedgie Bartol

Unlike a closed video surveillance system, a network solution is easy to scale and redeploy, which provides LP with options for leveraging technology to enhance safety and security without the cost of deploying additional LP staff, including with audio analytics, explained Hedgie Bartol, retail segment development manager at Axis Communications.

Audio analytics, either as a standalone module or a camera add-on, can provide alerts when employees may be at risk. “They can tell when things are getting heated, like between a cashier and a customer,” Bartol said. “It can immediately send an alert to a manager, or someone who is specially trained in de-escalation, to go to the scene to help.” Glass break detection is also a useful application of audio. Upon triggering, networked solutions can immediately send live video to local law enforcement.

Ken Mills, general manager of IoT, surveillance, and security at Dell, recounted during an ISC West conference panel discussion how one European city’s shopping district — hampered by rowdy behavior late at night — deployed audio analytics to trigger streetlights to increase brightness when escalating voice levels were detected. Doing so helped to modulate patrons’ behavior and restore the shopping area’s reputation in the community as a safe place to go at night, he explained.

British Transport Police reported that six months after pumping Mozart and Pavarotti through loudspeakers at its most dangerous stations, gang activity had dropped significantly. The soothing music was credited with a 33 percent reduction in robberies, a 25 percent reduction in assaults on staff, and a 37 percent reduction in vandalism. As a result, the London Underground planned to expand its one-station pilot project to multiple tube stations. It is not the only example — classical music has been used as an effective security measure in diverse situations, from Canadian parks to convenience store parking lots to Australian railway stations.

While leveraging sound and audio can be helpful, it’s not widespread — tools like aggression detection in intelligent video solutions are available but underutilized. “I think retailers, with LP at the lead as the owner of most of the technologies, are at the cusp of great things, but in a lot of these scenarios, it’s a matter of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know,’” Bartol said.

Beneficially, networked security technology has taken pressure off LP and should encourage their creativity. “I suggest they think about, ‘what would I attempt from an integrated technology standpoint if I could not fail?” he said. “With consumer expectations for smart and connected stores, there is way more risk these days from doing nothing than in adopting the wrong technology, because networks make it far simpler to change technologies today.”

Audio — similar to video — can raise privacy issues retailers must manage, including compliance with state wiretapping laws, or the prohibition of video or audio monitoring in bathrooms, locker rooms, and similar areas.

Commercial video management platforms do an excellent job of organizing and identifying video, but they often don’t do as good of a job when helping users manage incidents for which retailers need to maintain surveillance files. It can be left to end users to do whatever they want with files, and without proper software prompts, retailers need to be mindful how they manage incident files, including validating the chain of custody of video, audio, or still images, and implementing a structured process for how long to keep files, where to keep them, and identifying what level of backup is required based on the severity of the incident. When developing a video surveillance system, organizations need to be as careful planning incident storage as surveillance coverage, experts warn.

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