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A Wrinkle in Time

IN 1969, a Norwalk, Connecticut, dairy farmer named Stew Leonard had an epiphany: the milk delivery business was going to go the way of the horse and buggy. Leonard decided to found a small dairy shop with seven employees and carrying just eight items. The little market quickly grew into the world’s largest dairy store. Today, Stew Leonard’s Farm Fresh Foods are located in Norwalk, Danbury, and Newington, Connecticut; and Yonkers, New York. It is a $300 million annual enterprise with approximately 2,000 employees.

The stores sell more than 6,000 items—everything from meats to wine to bakery goods to gifts—in a farmer’s market atmosphere where the primary rule is literally chiseled in stone on three-ton granite slabs parked at the entrance to each store: “The Customer is Always Right.” In addition to its commitments to customer service, Stew Leonard’s is regarded as the Disneyland of dairy stores because of its costumed characters, petting zoo, and animatronics.

The loss prevention (LP) department at Stew Leonard seeks creative solutions. It hasn’t gone so far as to use the company’s six-foot-tall dancing bananas as spy cams, but it has put into place an innovative video synopsis technology that enables security to save copious staff hours during investigations.

“We’re a relatively small security department with a significant enclave of cameras throughout our buildings,” says Bruce Kennedy, Stew Leonard’s director of LP and logistics. “We have close to 500 cameras in the network.” This becomes an issue when investigations of thefts, accidents, and other issues occur. “One investigation can take eight to 12 hours—especially if there is video involved,” he states.

About two years ago, the loss prevention team began looking for a solution to shorten the process of reviewing CCTV video. “We looked at the entire gamut of solutions…. We attended several trade shows, took a look at white papers on the Internet, and I spoke to a lot of my peers in the industry,” Kennedy recalls, adding that the solution they were seeking had to be “cost-feasible; it had to integrate seamlessly, and had to be easy to use—that was probably the most important thing.”

LP evaluated all the technologies and narrowed it down to the two strongest contenders. “They were separated by extremes,” he says. “One involved sending the video to a third party to review and after a week or two, we’d get a response back. That was too long. We wanted to provide answers as quickly as we could.”

The other contender was BriefCam, by BriefCam Ltd. of Neve Ilan, Israel, an award-winning product suggested by an integrator who had worked with Stew Leonard’s on its CCTV system. (BriefCam was the winner of the 2011 ASIS International Accolades Award for Surveillance, as well as the 2010 Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award for Physical Security, and other honors.)

Kennedy contacted the company. “They were just starting to get a hold in the industry in the United States. They said, ‘Give us a try,’ and from the onset we saw the possibilities.”

BriefCam offers two solutions: BriefCam Video Synopsis (VS) Enterprise and VS Forensics, both of which use the same technology to allow video reviews to proceed at a greatly quickened pace. VS Enterprise can fully integrate with almost all IP cameras and digital video recorders (DVRs) or networked video recorders (NVRs). The software interface allows users to pull recorded footage by specific dates and times; it then uses video-analytic software to compress the footage into a radically shortened synopsis. One hour of footage can be viewed in an average of one minute.

Kennedy explains that what he and his team see when they review the footage is a series of superimposed streams of activity—for example, if the camera feed is from a camera focused on the entrance to one of the Stew Leonard’s stores, the synopsis will show every customer or employee coming and going, each one with a time stamp following them along.

“When we see something of interest, we click on the time stamp or the image,” he says. “BriefCam isolates that specific video stream.”

Asked if the superimposed images are confusing, Kennedy responds that they are not, especially because in the majority of investigations the security staff already knows what to look for. “So, if we are looking for a customer in a red baseball cap, once we see him, we click on him, and everyone else goes away except that customer,” he states.

The BriefCam VS Forensics creates the same time-stamped synopses, but is a standalone, offline application that does not require integration with a DVR or NVR. Users import the video into VS Forensics to create the time-compression synopses.

Kennedy decided to employ both the VS Enterprise and VS Forensics at Stew Leonard’s. The installation took place last autumn at all the stores and also at Stew Leonard’s Wine Stores, which is a legally separate entity that contracts the use of Stew Leonard’s name and human resources, public relations, loss prevention, and security services.

During integration, there were some technical kinks, “but the BriefCam staff were absolutely great,” he says.

“Early in the process,” he recalls, “as we spoke to vendors, we told them that we were looking for a partnership with Stew Leonard’s. This is not going to be a purchase and out-the-door kind of thing. We wanted to be able to call someone and get a response back to any critical issues we came across. They have come through on that.”

A BriefCam technical specialist worked with Stew Leonard’s IT department during the installation, placing the VS Enterprise software on the servers that operate the cameras covering critical areas, such as money rooms and cash registers. “Those are dialed directly into the software application so we can pull up synopses immediately,” Kennedy says.

Synopses from noncritical cameras are created by VS Forensics on an as-needed basis, rather than being connected directly. “We can pull video from a specific camera, from any server we want, and we can export it—bring it into BriefCam VS Forensics…. It gives you the exact same synopsis as VS Enterprise will, there’s just an extra step in between.”

Ease of use was important to security, and Kennedy says the pair of solutions have not disappointed in that regard. “Within five to 10 minutes of sitting down with the product, [LP officers] were fully trained,” he states.

And after seven months of use, Kennedy couldn’t be more pleased. “It has worked very well. There have been a lot of successes with investigations we’ve done. We’ve also used it in nonconventional LP aspects of business. For example, it is deployed at some of our wine stores; and we use it there for marketing purposes, product flow, customer flow, and to monitor activity during tastings. We give our feedback to non-LP folks, the marketers, and the buyers,” he says.

Kennedy also states that VS Enterprise and VS Forensics “have already paid for themselves. Return on investment was in less than six months.”