Retail Surveillance Operator Secrets Revealed

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on Aug 01, 2013

What's it like to be a surveillance operator? What problems do they face? How do they do their job?

We interviewed one with extensive experience at major retailers, both in management and operations.

Here are some of the key topics and lessons covered:

  • The 4 must-have elements of stopping a suspected shoplifter
  • The 5 top shoplifting scams faced
  • The hardest part of using cameras: remembering this information
  • Effective camera positions including using moveable cameras
  • Searching Footage and the issues they faced
  • Ranking the type of loss and why shrink is not number one
  • How surveillance differs between big box stores and warehouse store/cubs
  • How shoplifters are investigated
  • Tools being phased out including a very popular security category
  • Here's a summary of the findings we dig into below:

    • Recalling the names of cameras was the hardest part in using the surveillance system.
    • While 16 cameras might be shown on screens, each video pane was too small to be usable.
    • Searching for footage was problematic and could take half a shift
    • Slip and falls were a big problem, combating shoplifting was a 'bonus'
    • Night shift employee theft was a common occurrence.
    • Warehouse stores had significantly less surveillance and theft than regular retail stores.
    • Operators often bluff shoplifters by telling them they have facial recognition when they do not
    • The surveillance operator must keep line of sight with the shoplifitng suspect or else it's 'game over'
    • EAS and greeters are being phased out.

    Daily Operation

    Loss Prevention departments at most store locations consist of a manager and two associates. The manager works on “high profile” investigations (robberies, employee theft, investigations of management employees). The associates split their time between walking the floor (often in disguises), monitoring cameras and smaller investigations (compiling evidence for claims and shoplifting incidents).

    The operator says the video surveillance system was easy to use that he mastered it after a month on the job. 

    “The hardest part was remembering what the shots are labeled,” he said. There were no integrated on-screen maps so memorization was key. 

    “If the shot was labeled POS1, which means point-of-sale, you have to know where that is in the store so you know where you’re looking.  Sometimes when you’re against the clock and you need to investigate something quickly or you need to pull up shots to track somebody, when there are 200 different shots you can’t remember them all at first. The more you work at it though, the more it becomes second nature.  

    “We can have about 16 shots up at one time, but the size of our screens are too small to get a lot of detail in those shots. We would sometimes have 16 up for tracking, but we’d usually just have a few main shots up at a time.” 

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    The two associates will often switch off between walking the floor and monitoring the cameras to break up the time spent staring at screens. Camera skills are especially honed during the holidays. 

    “You’re learning which shots are the best ones to use as your main shots, and you’re constantly going from person to person, watching their hands or what they’re doing. Once they’re not suspicious, you immediately move to the next person,” he said. 

    The camera operator also directs the person on the floor to suspicious activity. “For example, if you see a large group of teenage girls walking toward the jewelry section with big bags, you’d alert the person on the floor to head in that direction.”

    The LP team is also responsible for OSHA compliance so while on the floor they are looking for wet spots, making sure spill stations are stocked, removing loose or dangerous fixtures and checking food temperatures.

    Maintenance and Support

    For this corporation, the loss prevention department is responsible for daily maintenance and cleaning the cameras. Each store has a limited IT department, but technical problems with surveillance systems and new camera installations are handled by local integrators.

    Camera Positions and Views

    A “small” store has around 200 cameras with set locations:

    • High traffic aisles
    • High value items departments (jewelry, electronics)
    • Entrances/Exits
    • Each Register (time synced with POS system)
    • Automotive department

    All other cameras are movable throughout the store as needed. Cameras are not allowed to face fitting rooms so the areas around them are considered blind spots. It was up to the dressing room attendants to be attentive and make sure people came out with what they took in. 

    About a quarter of every system, no matter the size of the store, consists of exterior cameras. “They were not necessarily to capture detail, they were more for tracking. You want to know what vehicle, [a suspect] got in and where they were going. The ones at [locations in bigger cities] had the capability to zoom in to read license plates.”

    On moving cameras for investigations:

    “There was an employee sneaking products into the janitor’s closet and we knew about it, but we wanted to see it happen so we took a camera an installed it in the janitor’s closet temporarily. Once we caught him though, we didn’t need that shot anymore and we moved it somewhere else.”

    Searching Footage

    There was no quick way to search footage in any of the stores. If the LP team received a report of an incident they would manually search footage. He says on bigger investigations he could spend half of a shift searching footage just to verify 30 seconds worth of material. However, if the incident had to do with a POS then they could cross-reference the times. Bigger stores in the corporation are starting to phase in software that allows automatic tracking and searching footage.

    Employee Theft vs. Shoplifting Vs. Claims

    The cameras were primarily used to fight claims made against the store. “The corporation really cares about accidents,” he said. “Being able to use them for shoplifting is more like an added bonus than a primary reason.” On average, a successful claim would settle for about $20,000 and at his store, slip and fall claims were prevalent. 

    “We had a least a couple claims a month at a minimum. People would say they got cut on a cart, or that a cart hit their car, or that they got their car serviced and the tires popped and blamed the technician. We even had people try to claim damages because they were pulling down a paper towel roll another roll hit them in the head.” During busier shopping seasons, the location sometimes spent as much time preventing claims as it did prosecuting shoplifters.

    The LP manager would regularly post regional stats on an employee bulletin board. Shrink overall was around 25 percent of losses. At times, employee theft was as high as 50 percent of that. These numbers are consistent with reports from the National Retail Federation who estimates employee theft at retail stores is 47 percent [link no longer available] of shrink. The NRF says shrink is around 35 percent.

    “Store associates steal a lot because it’s a lot easier for them, but we eventually catch them because in a store, somebody is always snitching on somebody,” he said.

    Night shifts were the worst for employee theft and his store was the top in the region for employees stealing from the cash office.

    “This was one of the hardest things to catch. If someone goes into a corner and is doing something with their hands, we can assume they took something but it’s not enough to accuse them. Even the police wouldn’t take cases like that. They wanted footage that would give them successful prosecutions. We had multiple camera shots in the office but people have ways of finding the blind spots. Even so, we started catching them. Eventually people would just enter the numbers wrong in the books instead. People at registers who know the cameras don’t always catch motion well would grab cash in fast enough motions that we couldn’t say for sure if they took it.”

    The operator thinks people did not always know exactly where the blinds spots were, but had a good idea of how to block their hands with their bodies or other items. 

    None of the cameras were used for business intelligence or retail analytics that he knows of.  

    Retail Sales vs. Warehouse Stores/Clubs

    Here are the main differences he noticed at a wholesale store vs. retail chain:

    • Significantly less cameras
    • Almost no slip and fall/other claims
    • Loss Prevention department is a single person

    Less security is needed, he says, because people do not typically try to steal bulk items and all receipts are checked at the door. The environment is much more controlled than the regular retail stores.

    Quality of Equipment Depended on the Size of the Store

    Operators from small stores are often brought in to bigger stores to assist with large scale investigations. Here are some of his observations:

    At stores in small towns the equipment was older, with more technical problems and lower quality images.

    But stores in bigger cities either had or were phasing in:

    • Bigger monitors
    • Cameras with automatic tracking
    • Higher quality PTZs with capability to zoom in on license plates

    Shoplifting Scams

    He worked in the largest region in the state. The most common organized retail crime scams involved fake money and tag switching, but here are some scams where surveillance footage played the biggest role.


    Shoplifting gangs use the push-out to steal a large amount of product, using busy shopping times as cover. They fill a cart with target items (or push a whole shelf of items into the cart) and walk out the door without paying, sometimes holding a fake receipt. In some cases they will use an emergency exit instead, loading the items into a waiting car before camera operators can determine which exit alarm is going off and pull up the camera. 

    Register Keys

    A pair of professional shoplifters wearing store uniforms was hitting stores in the area regularly. One would pretend to be a manager and the other an associate and they would steal money from cash registers using a register key they obtained somehow. Exterior cameras at one of the stores provided license plate data and descriptions that led police to them. Wearing store uniforms is a common tactic to gain access to stockrooms and getting out the back door. These types of scams usually happen when the least amount of people are in the building (early in the morning or late at night).

    Fake Receipts

    Professional shoplifters canvas parking lots for discarded receipts, then find the items on the receipt in the store and attempt refunds. With longer receipts, shoplifters fill a cart with the same items on a receipt and walk out. This is where door greeters should step in, the operator we interviewed says. “They’re supposed to be checking the times on the receipts if they are suspicious, but often they’re older or just don’t want to offend anyone so they don’t.”

    Two For One

    To beat greeters who actually check receipts, there is the “two for one.” A person legitimately purchases a high dollar item, a flat screen TV, for example. As they leave the store they covertly hand off the receipt to another shoplifter who loads an identical TV into a cart and walks out, showing the greeter the same receipt.

    Package Swap

    This happens when a person legitimately buys a suitcase or container, but loads it with other merchandise. In some cases the employee at the register is in on the scam and does not check inside. This is a hard one to prove if there is no footage of the shoplifter filling the suitcase.

    Investigations Procedures

    After an incident, the LP team first interviews witnesses then reviews footage to make sure everything matches. The team would burn at least two copies of an incident (one to archive and one for police).

    “The first thing the police would want as soon as they arrived is to see the footage. They want to make sure the evidence is good and something they can use.”

    If the evidence was not enough to press charges or the suspect was not caught, the store would create a file for the suspect. If they were not caught the first time, they usually were by the third.

    After stealing from a store three times, the camera operators knows what a person looks like, their tactics and target items. As soon as the suspect returned to the store the camera operator would start tracking them. With each visit, a shoplifter gets bolder. With prior knowledge of the shoplifter’s patterns, camera operators get better evidence. Police could get shoplifters to confess to prior acts using past footage that may not have been good enough on its own.

    “Even if we don’t have enough evidence for prior crimes, we still call the police for each one to have that paper trail. If nothing else, we’d always have pretty clear face shots from when they went in and out the door.”

    LP managers would sometimes bluff shoplifters saying the store used facial recognition software to monitor if they came back, but “there is no national database to make sure these people come back. We just go on memory and photos from the cameras at the door.”

    Four Elements of a Stopping a Suspected Shoplifter

    • You have to see a shoplifter take an item
    • You have to see them conceal the item
    • You have to maintain line-of-sight until they get ready to leave
    • They have to walk past the POS

    The LP manager reviews every report for these four elements. An associate can be fired for a bad stop and shoplifters know this. They have a term for it: a bathroom stop.

    “They know if we break line-of-sight, it’s game over. They say stuff like, ‘You can’t stop me. I went in the bathroom’” Most associates would let the person go at that point. In some cases, associates under pressure to make numbers would press the person.

    “I’ve seen guys come to me sweating bullets about making a bad stop, but luckily in those cases they were able to get the person to admit taking merchandise,” he said.

    Line-of-sight can be accomplished with the cameras or by the person on the ground or a combination of both. For example if someone walks past dressing rooms, they lose line-of-sight with the cameras, but a person on the floor can follow them through the department. 

    Loss Prevention Tools Being Phased Out

    This particular chain is phasing out its greeters because of a large amount of customer complaints about having to show receipts. He says greeters were a big help because if they were suspicious of a receipt they could just look up at the camera and operators would know to track the person into the parking lot.

    They are phasing out EAS systems for the same reason. “Think about five years ago. If you were in a store long enough you’d hear one go off. You don’t hear them go off anymore. You’ll still see them in a lot of stores but the majority of them are deactivated now,” he said. “There were just too many false alarms. They were set off by a lot of things, including our own radios. Customers start to complain when you’re stopping them and they haven’t done anything.”

    As they lose capability, there is still pressure for their shrink numbers to stay the same or get better, he says. The shrink reports were posted on an employee bulletin board. When they weren’t a lot of incidents posted, other managers would question how much work the LP department was actually doing, not realizing the scope of the job.

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