How IT Helped Catch the Jewelry Thief

The Zale Corp. jewelry store chain is having much better luck catching burglars in real time, thanks to a little help from the IT side of the house. Loss Prevention Manager Dennis Thomas explains how the company built its high-tech command center from scratch

It used to be that after a robbery, the police would review a surveillance tape for clues into who broke in, at what time and what the bad guys looked like. Since the thieves would be long gone by the time the tape was reviewed, there would often be little the authorities could do about it.

But thanks to 21st-Century technology, the crooks are being watched in real time and, as a result, getting caught a lot more often.

In this Q&A, Dennis Thomas, regional loss prevention manager and certified field trainer at Zale Corp., explains how the retailer's IT operation is playing an increasingly important role in the physical security effort.

CSO: How has the art of loss prevention changed in the last decade, in terms of how IT and cyberspace comes into play?

Dennis Thomas: In the last 10 years the corporation has really come around to the understanding that criminals have embraced technology and that the only way to defeat them is by staying one step ahead from a technological aspect.

CSO: Give some examples of how the bad guys are using technology against companies like yours.

Thomas: They use technology and the Internet to conduct counter-surveillance on the police departments, they're using Google Earth and they're using GPS technology to get from one place to the next. They'll enter a retail corporation's Web page and use the store locator section to get the various addresses, which they plug into their GPS systems and it allows them to go from location to location to location.

CSO: Your organization seems to be fighting back in more of a real-time fashion, as opposed to surveillance camera recordings where you would see the burglary take place long after the fact.

Thomas: Keep in mind, in the old days a crime could occur in a store with the employees there and they wouldn't always notice what was happening. With remote technology our trained operators at the command center can observe a theft in progress and notify the police in real time with important time-sensitive details like description, method of operation and where the merchandise is on the person. The police in turn are a lot more successful in making an arrest than they were five years ago. The real benefit is the increase in time notification. Let's say the operator doesn't immediately see the theft as it's happening. They can still e-mail camera images to the police, which is still faster than trying to pull video off an old VCR tape.

CSO: Who are you using as a vendor to operate the command center?

Thomas: We own and operate our own command center.

CSO: So you built the whole thing in house.

Thomas: Exactly. We worked with a local vendor to develop the technology and devised everything right down to the terminology that the operators use to communicate with the stores.

CSO: Did your command center develop gradually and organically, or was it based off of one big plan from the outset?

Thomas: It was a gradual process that took years. There were three phases: developing the technology, implementing the technology and further enhancing the system once it was operational, working out the kinks. We had our challenges as we basically ventured into uncharted territory but the technology was proven and successfully implemented the vision into the business. We are probably one of the more forward-thinking companies in the jewelry industry from a technological standpoint.

CSO: How much has this cut down on the time it takes on average to either catch the thief or at least solve a crime?

Thomas: I'll give you two statistics: First: The corporation has achieved record shrink lows for the last seven consecutive years. Second: a significant reduction in shrink [lost merchandise/revenue] as a result of burglaries. You can directly attribute that to the technology we've put in place. During the days of the old analog systems there was always that window where the thief could break in, steal merchandise and be gone long before the break-in would be discovered. There has been a significant increase in the number of criminals apprehended because we can get three to five cruisers out there immediately, because the police know if Zales calls, we are seeing a burglary unfolding before our eyes. We are able to verify to them immediately that it's not a false alarm.

CSO: If you are a retailer just coming to the realization that you need to adopt a system like Zale's, what are the first items you should be thinking about?

Thomas: The first thing you need to do is determine where your risk is. Is it the employee? Does the general public have access to your merchandise? Where is your shrink occurring and where will those precious dollars get the most benefit? The second thing you should do is go out and look at what your competitors are doing technologically to ensure security. Then you are able to build your system to meet the specific needs of your organization.

CSO: Has anyone come to you, including competitors, asking for help to start up the type of operation you have built?

Thomas: Yes. I don't think I can tell you who the specific retailers are, but I can tell you we've been approached by several retailers who want to come in and see what we've done.

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