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Using License Plate Recognition in a Retail Context

While much of the recent focus on video analytics has been centered around the pros and cons of using facial recognition systems, not least how to address major concerns relating to legality, privacy, and proportionality, another form of video ‘recognition’ has been operating for quite some time in and around retail spaces without generating anything like the concern seen with facial recognition.

That is the use of automatic license plate recognition systems (ALPR). Originally adopted and developed mainly by police forces around the world to monitor, identify, and track vehicles of interest, such as those that have been stolen or involved in a criminal incident, retailers have begun to use this technology for a variety of use cases, some of which have been shared with ECR Retail Loss looking at video technologies.

In most countries around the world, vehicles that use public roads/highways are legally required to be registered with a government agency. In addition, vehicles typically have to prominently display a unique identifier—a license plate—so that at any time they can be identified and linked back to the government agency database of ownership. What ALPR systems do is use video technologies to automatically scan these license plates and record where and when they have been identified. Depending on the extent of the network of ALPR-enabled cameras, this can mean that a vehicle, and by association its owner, can be tracked across a network of highways and locations.

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Utilization of ALPR by Retailers

While use cases of ALPR in and around retail can be found stretching back more than 16 years in some countries, it is only in the past 5-10 years that its use has really begun to be seen across a broader range of use cases covering both criminal and non-criminal deployments.

Monitoring Customer Parking

Probably the first and most extensive use of ALPR has been in the monitoring and control of parking lots operated by retailers. In most cases, retailers allow their customers to park for a stated and limited period of time while accessing their store, but this can be a difficult proposition to effectively monitor and police without committing labor costs.

Through the use of ALPR, retailers—and increasingly, the third parties they employ to monitor their parking lots—can now automatically monitor access to these spaces and impose fines on those that overstay the agreed period of use. 

Deterring and Detecting Fuel Drive-offs

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A second major use case for ALPR has been the identification of vehicles that are involved in drive-offs at gas stations—offenders that fill up their vehicles with fuel and then drive away without paying. In this instance, ALPR is used in two ways: first, to record evidence of when a drive-off has occurred, and second, to alert staff when a vehicle that has been involved in a previous drive-off has entered the forecourt.

Vehicle Access Control

For some retail locations, such as distribution centers, ensuring that only sanctioned vehicles are allowed to access and leave a site can be a time consuming and labor-intensive activity. Through the use of ALPR and a database of vehicles that have been pre-determined (sometimes within particular timeframes) to enter and leave a site, the process of access control can become largely automated.

Building Organized Crime Criminal Case Files

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Most retailers are familiar with the problems of getting increasingly over-worked criminal justice agencies to respond to the problems of retail crime. In order to try and improve the likelihood of persistent retail offenders being prosecuted, loss prevention teams are putting together ‘evidence packs’ of crimes committed by the same person/gang (photos and videos of offenders, products stolen, locations, time of day, etc). As part of this work, ALPR is being used to associate particular vehicles with offenses, individuals, and gangs involved, often across multiple locations (the cameras can also produce images of occupants of vehicles as well).

Dynamic Store Alerts

Growing concerns about organized retail crime, and the speed with which gangs of thieves can move between locations, has led some retailers to begin to use ALPR to identify when known offenders are entering the parking space of a store and then provide a real-time alert to store staff to warn them of their imminent arrival.

Delivering Value Added Customer Service With Order Pickup

In addition to helping retailers deal with malicious threats, ALPR is also beginning to be used to facilitate customer service-oriented activities. For instance, a retailer in New Zealand is using the technology to enable staff operating on their fuel forecourts (gas stations) to be alerted when a customer has arrived that has pre-ordered a particular product, such as a cup of coffee. Staff are then able to deliver this directly to the customer. Similar technology is also being used for curbside pickups—staff are alerted when a customer’s vehicle has entered the car park and they can then prepare their order for pickup, dramatically speeding up the process.

Future Developments

While the focus of ALPR use to date has largely been for the identification by police of vehicles involved in criminal endeavors, what can be seen is a growing number of use cases pertinent to the retail environment—addressing not only malicious activities but also offering opportunities to improve customer service. What is also important to understand is that because vehicle and ownership registration is a long established and mandatory activity, the utilization of this data seems to be much less marred (in some countries) in concerns about privacy, data protection, and proportionality compared with facial recognition. As such, it could offer retailers a number of significant opportunities to lose less and perhaps even sell more.

Adrian Beck
Adrian Beck

Video Watch is a monthly column written by Professor Adrian Beck sharing insights on the proactive use and impact of video technologies in retail. It reflects the latest research and monthly discussions of the Video Working Group of ECR Retail Loss, the leading global think tank on retail loss. The research commissioned by ECR Retail Loss is supported by independent research grants provided by Genetec and other leaders in retail loss prevention.  

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