The need for an integrated view of TCO in retail video surveillance

It would be naïve to think that cost isn’t an issue for every business, and it’s certainly the case for the retail sector. The impact on the bottom line of any investment is closely scrutinized and questioned. In relation to investments in new technology – including video surveillance solutions – the focus can quickly be on the cost of the hardware itself.

This is perhaps understandable: the cost of the individual pieces of hardware are highly ‘visible’, and when specifying a system which might include hundreds of cameras across a network of dozens of stores, these individual costs quickly add up. But it is often the invisible and ongoing costs of running solutions which ultimately outstrip the initial cost of the hardware. These aspects come together into the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the solution, and should always form a specific part of retail investment evaluations.

Video surveillance costs in focus

When specifying a new video surveillance solution, the cameras themselves obviously play a central role. After all, the motivation for the new solution is the provision of high-quality images in different lighting conditions. On paper, many cameras look very similar in terms of image resolution and camera functionality. And, indeed, in tests it may appear that individual cameras from different manufacturers perform similarly well. As a result, and particularly when a solution may include tens, hundreds or even thousands of cameras, the individual cost of a camera becomes an important decision-making factor and an area where perceived savings can be made. But as we will see, short-term cost savings do not necessarily result in long-term value.

Data is driving the hidden costs, and creating issues

A surveillance solution including numerous high-resolution video cameras across an entire store network will create a lot of data. And it is in this data that a lot of the less visible costs of video surveillance arise, not only in storage and transfer, but also in the time involved in accessing footage for analysis and investigation.

Alongside the cameras, the video recorder and video management software (VMS) are other essential parts of a video surveillance solution. High-quality images from cameras aren’t much use if they can’t be stored for later review and analysis. A recorder needs to be able to manage the video data from multiple cameras, and store it for a sufficient amount of time (typically 30 days in a sector such as retail) to allow for the investigation of any incidents.

The data created by multiple cameras recording high-resolution images can quickly overwhelm the video recorder’s existing storage. Unfortunately, the simple answer to the issue – buying additional storage capacity – has the undesirable effect of increasing the overall and ongoing cost of the solution.

To avoid this cost increase, many system administrators will turn to the next most obvious solution: reducing the bitrate setting on the video cameras. This of course has the effect of reducing the quality of images recorded by the camera, undermining the rationale for investing in the solution in the first place.

And storage isn’t the only issue with increased data. Given the multisite nature of retailers – and the lack of resources available in-store to monitor live video – video cameras will be connected to the retailer’s headquarters. Often the bandwidth available between stores and HQ for security use is limited and again, the obvious solutions to resolving the issue either mean increased costs or lower quality images. Neither is ideal.

The need for forensic data, and the associated cost

The key reason for video surveillance in retail is to allow effective investigation of incidents and criminal acts, and for this, forensic levels of detail are needed. Given the centralized nature of video surveillance management in multisite retail, it is unfeasible to have live monitoring of feeds from hundreds of cameras in multiple stores – retailers must rely on recorded video data. Added to this, in recent years the requests from law enforcement agencies for remote consults and retrievals of video surveillance sequences from retailers has increased dramatically.

Combined, these factors result in a greater demand for high-resolution video data to be transferred over limited bandwidth on a more regular basis – a manual task with a high associated cost in time and the human resource required. If a focus on lower hardware costs results in the need for more human operators, any savings will be quickly wiped out.

Resolving the issue around data

It’s essential that the data implications on the TCO of a new video surveillance solution become an integrated part of the procurement process for retailers. Test the capabilities of individual cameras, yes, but also understand the collective impact of the data these create which needs to be transferred and stored.

Manufacturers will all have their own answer to the question. For Axis this is Zipstream, a proprietary technology which preserves forensic detail in video footage, while reducing the bandwidth and storage needs by an average of 50%. It is essential to rigorously interrogate and test these claims.

The benefits to retailers of ever-improving quality in network video surveillance are numerous in safety and security, but there are always implications that need to be taken into account. It’s a false economy to focus purely on the initial investment in hardware, if this ultimately leads to additional costs to manage and retrieve the data created or, perhaps worse, reducing the quality of the video captured. While cost continues to be an issue for retailers, they can’t afford to ignore the data question.

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