Antiques shop surveillance tools should be on everyone’s radar

It was just after 7 a.m., and the Mountain Top Antique Mall in Hillsville, Va., hadn’t opened yet. A late-model black pickup truck pulled into the mall’s lot and parked. An older man got out of the truck, walked up to the porch and tried the door; it was locked. No one was around and the location wasn’t easily visible from the road. The man helped himself to about $150 worth of the hanging flower baskets that decorated the mall’s front porch, loaded them into his truck and drove away. There were no witnesses.

Two days later, the police arrested the man responsible for the robbery.


This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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How?

The entire incident was recorded on video by one of Mountain Top’s three security systems. After reporting the incident to the police, Travis Griffin, the store manager, and Jonathan Dillman, the store’s information technology specialist, assembled a video of the robbery and posted it to YouTube and the store’s Facebook page. The video was picked up by the local newspaper, The Galax Gazette, (security camera footage and narration can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/MountainTopTheft) which reported the robbery and asked for help identifying the thief. Readers responded, and a suspect was arrested.

theft at antique mall

Surveillance video recorded at the Mountain Top Antique Mall of Hillsville, Va., shows an unidentified man on the shop’s porch after hours. The video was posted to the video sharing site YouTube.com and was useful in identifying the man in relation to a theft of $150 worth of potted hanging plants.

Such thefts are commonplace. The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) reports that more than 10 million people have been caught shoplifting in the last five years. Imagine how many are not getting caught! Shoplifters report that they are caught only once in every 48 times they steal. Police are only involved 50 percent of the time, so even the statistics that are kept are not the full picture. Add in the cost of employee theft — 58 percent of all retail theft — and inventory shrinkage becomes a very big expense for retailers.

Who’s stealing? Every age group and social demographic of men, women and children. There is no “typical shoplifter” profile. Nationwide, one in every 11 people has shoplifted; that’s approximately 27 million shoplifters. Shoplifters usually buy and steal merchandise in the same visit, and they typically steal $2 to $200 worth of merchandise per incident. NASP studies indicate that shoplifting is a compulsion; it’s addicting in the same way drugs are. The thrill of “getting away with it” releases endorphins in the brain that produce what shoplifters describe as a “rush” or “high.” NASP reports that it’s this high — not the merchandise itself — that compels shoplifters to steal; 57 percent of adults and 33 percent of juveniles say it is hard for them to stop shoplifting even after getting caught.

The antiques shops I interviewed for this article fell mostly into two categories: antiques malls, like Mountain Top, which go to great lengths to protect their consignors’ merchandise, and mom-and-pop stores that have no security systems at all. Understandably, the operations without security systems didn’t want to be identified; to do so would be like posting a neon sign that reads “Shoplifters Welcome.” Some small, single-owner shops have security systems, but not many. Often, antiques shops occupy re-zoned residential space rather than commercial retail space. The many small rooms of a former residence require more cameras and security precautions than an open commercial space, so setting up a state-of-the-art security system can be expensive. Smaller shop owners say that their low level of theft doesn’t justify the cost of an expensive security system.

Security systems don’t have to be expensive to be effective. Cameras don’t even have to work at all to deter theft. But if your cameras don’t work, you won’t catch any thieves. Just ask the folks at Mountain Top Antique Mall.

“The problem with cameras,” says Jeff Budd of Smartwire Security & Surveillance in Jacksonville, Fla., “is that someone has to be watching them (in order to catch a shoplifter). Otherwise, you may have to go through hours of video to find the theft.”

By that time, the thief is long gone. Budd, whose wife was an antiques dealer for 40 years, is very familiar with the security needs of antique stores.

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Cameras are a good general deterrent, but stores’ biggest losses come from unsecured showcases, according to Budd.

The bigger the mall, the bigger the problem. Dealers usually put their most expensive items (jewelry, coins, etc.) into a locked showcase, thinking that the goods are safe. Certainly they are safe from casual shoplifters, but determined thieves know that showcases hold the pricier items, and they have ways to quickly “jimmy” the door lock or use a suction cup to break through the glass. Budd recommends that showcases be equipped with a security device that sounds at the register any time a showcase door opens.

Surveillance cameras should be part of an overall security system, but dealers shouldn’t rely on them entirely. Today, there are security systems available that guard against almost any contingency, but many of them would be of no use to an antiques dealer (like individual electronically monitored clothing tags, for example). Some security systems are closed systems, and some connect to the Internet for remote surveillance.

Here are some of the most common security measures shops are using today:

DVR and cameras

DVR (digital video recorder) systems include the DVR and a choice of dome, bullet, C-mount or infrared cameras; the DVR power supply; and one or more monitors. Most cameras come in both indoor and outdoor models. The camera viewing area should cover all points of entry and sensitive store areas. Security system consultants can help to identify where the cameras should be placed in your store. Sets can cost north of $200 for a four-camera outfit.

Fake cameras

Fake cameras have been referred to as “scarecrow surveillance.” Like a scarecrow in a garden, they are designed to discourage theft. Thieves don’t like to be seen, and if they think they are being watched, they will steal somewhere else. The best fake cameras look like the real thing: they have flashing LED lights, motion sensors and move in the direction of motion. Most operate on batteries; if yours does, be sure to change the batteries regularly. One camera can cost as little as $15.

Signage

Signage falls into the category of scarecrow surveillance. Strategically placed signs that read “Smile, You’re on Camera,” “Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted” and security company logos on doors and windows are common. Signs cost about $10 each.

Fisheye mirrors

Convex “fisheye” mirrors are a cost-effective way to make blind spots visible. But, as Jeff Budd pointed out, someone has to be watching them. These mirrors cost $20 to $100, depending on size.

Door chimes

Almost everyone uses these to alert the staff that someone has entered or left the store. Found nearly everywhere, these chimes cost about $30 for a single set.

Showcase alarms

Common mainly in antiques malls that have many vendors and showcases, these alarms cost from $12 to as much as $100, depending on style and function.

Intrusion detection

The first line of defense for a retail store is door and window security. Most of the dealers I spoke with had some sort of monitored burglar alarm system. A whole-shop system for doors and windows can run as much as $300.

When I asked Mountain Top Antique Mall’s Travis Griffin what that business’ most effective shoplifting deterrent was, he replied, “The publicity we have received from this incident. Once the public knows we are serious about security, shoplifters will stay away.”

Of course, dealers should not wait for a robbery before they get the word out about their security. A well-displayed combination of functional, “scarecrow” and old-fashioned fisheye mirrors and door chimes will send a clear message to potential shoplifters that they should go get their thrills someplace else.

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