Video surveillance cameras are no longer static fixtures that hang about unnoticed, their tapes only reviewed when the grim need arises. A number of managed service vendors are stepping up to provide round-the-clock digital access to video content via a subscription service, usually paid monthly.

Take Brandon Knudsen. He has a toddler to help put to bed and a coffee shop to run. He used to race back to the shop after bedtime. But after installing new video technology just over one year ago, the coffee shop owner tucks his son into bed, then logs on to his computer to check out the goings on at Ziggi’s Coffee House in Longmont, Colo.

More and more often these days, Knudsen manages his store remotely thanks to video cameras that continually stream their digital contents to a password protected website he accesses from home.

Video helps in many ways

Think of the service as roughly analogous to your cable television subscription, says Matt Steinfort, chief executive officer and president of EnVysion, a video surveillance managed service provider. You provide the video cameras in the same way you provide your existing TV to be wired to cable. The managed-care provider arrives at the small business to establish the Internet connection and the website. Should they go down, the provider repairs the connection.

At EnVysion, a four-camera set up runs $150 per month. Installation fee is $1,000.

The cameras can be used in a number of new ways to help small businesses pump up productivity. These include:

  • Managing remotely. Small business managers and owners can access business footage in real time as Knudsen does, giving them the capability to check on employees and manage the store in off hours or from another location.
  • Tracking shrinkage. The video systems can be integrated with point of sale system and searched by date, time, or transaction. Business owners can also create reports that will display video from pre-selected parameters such as transaction time. In this way, they can view and analyze suspicious transactions.
  • Better marketing. Digital video can identify customers’ connections with products and analyze their retail behavior. In a retail environment it can also analyze customer traffic patterns, helping to improve store layouts, says Stan Schatt, ABI Research vice president and research director. An ABI Research report released in May predicts a fourfold increase in video surveillance software revenue over the next five years.
  • Training. Knudsen reviews videos to ensure employees make coffee drinks correctly. Sounds mundane, but too many excess ingredients and the costs add up. Make a drink incorrectly and customers complain.
  • Cost reduction or containment. One Envysion customer locates cameras near the pizza production area to record the number of pepperoni going on each pizza. These numbers help when tracking product usage, Steinfort says.

Security benefits, too

For his part, Knudsen used the video to track why his 2007 hard-goods costs came to 40 percent of overall costs rather than the expected 30 percent.

“We discovered employees were giving out cups for water and splitting drinks into plastic cups,” he says. “They didn’t think it was a big deal, but when you add it up over the cost of the year, you’re talking $1,000 in plastic cups. In a couple of months, we got costs down to where they should be, in the 30 percent range.”

Rather than searching through realms of videotape, business owners can quickly review specific events based on time of day or other parameters.

At the Stooper Stop convenience store in West Fargo, N.D., the recorded images helped local police quickly apprehend a thief who stole nearly $200 in cash, says Todd Jacobson, owner.

The theft happened five years ago but is still fresh in Jacobson’s mind. Because he could quickly direct officers to the exact moment on the tape the theft took place, the police apprehended the suspect in just over three hours, he says.

“The guy just returned home after the crime and hadn’t even taken off his coat,” says Bethany Johs, chief executive officer at byRemote, the vendor that provides Jacobson’s video system.