Retro Surveillance at the Purple Cow

Purple CowBack in the early 80’s I worked for a large retailer with limited video surveillance technology from the 70’s.  I’m talking cameras with vacuum tubes in them.  Box cameras that really were the size of shoebox.  Invariably, they never worked.  Between age, little to no maintenance, and multiple points of failure—these cameras were practically useless for critical surveillance.

The retailer was Meijer (now the 13th largest privately owned company in the United States with 75,000 employees).  30 years ago it was definitely a simpler time, but employee theft investigations were as prevalent as they are today.  But, from where I sit, they were just much more difficult to conduct.

While camera technology was horrible, cash register technology was only marginally better.  NCR cash register systems didn’t give you printed exception reports of any value, but you could “tap” into a register in the store and get a running log of transactions being recorded on an active register.  Of course, that only helped when you identified a register/employee that warranted logging of real-time transactions.  And the method to determine that was exhaustive.

Back then it involved a daily review of select cash register tapes based on the rudimentary reports the system did provide—or, more likely—on manual cash over and short reports from the night before.  While most Loss Prevention professionals in the industry for any length of time know—for the benefit of those who don’t—the overages were often more telling than the shortages.  Overages could point to any number of potential register thefts, with failing to record sales being a big one.

At Meijer, we had the Purple Cow.  The Purple Cow was the name of the ice cream counter which (at that time) was located inside the front area of a Meijer store, just outside the checkouts. (Stores today typically have a much scaled down version of the Purple Cow located inside the checkouts).  It was a pretty typical ice cream counter.  You could get 30 or more flavors of ice cream cones or sundaes, along with soft drinks, and baked goods—as a bakery usually shared the counter space. 

The Purple Cow is the subject of this review of retro-style surveillance from 30 years ago. 

A daily review of register tapes and observation on multiple occasions from afar suggested an employee in the Purple Cow was collecting customer monies for transactions and working from an open register—not recording sales—throughout her entire shift. 

When you have an employee putting customer money in the drawer but not ringing in the sale it creates an overage of money in the register drawer.  The cashier removes that “extra” money from the register late in her shift to pocket the cash and to make the drawer balance when it gets turned in. 

It can be difficult to keep track of how much of an overage has been created during a shift of not ringing up sales (some employees had ways of trying to keep track—but most methods are not exact due to the time it takes and the increased risk of being found out if you take the time to be exact).  Because of this, it is not uncommon for a cashier to have collected, let’s say, $43.56 that was not rung up during a shift.  As their shift ends they pocket an amount that is easy to quickly take—in this case two twenty dollar bills—leaving the overage of $3.56 when the drawer is counted.

So, how do you confirm that a suspected theft of this nature is taking place?  Thirty years ago when your cameras were useless, you had strike one.  That caused strike two because you couldn’t really make use of the NCR ability to tap into a cash register without a working camera.  Strike three was the very open location of the Purple Cow counter, making surveillance difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible.  We went to the ceiling, above the register.  More specifically, to me, in the ceiling, above the register.  Yes, that is how it was done before we had the security technology we have today.  Real people—eyeballs on the scene—up close, but covert.

Here is how it worked.  To set the stage you need to know there was a time when these stores were not 24 hour a day operations.  They closed at 10PM to customers and while most nights a third shift did cleaning and re-stocked shelves, even that was not every night.  So, on nights when no one was in these 130,000 sq. ft. stores, a couple security staff would go in and install a plywood platform, attached by chains to the rafters above the drop ceiling—in areas where investigations were ongoing.  In this case, above the Purple Cow register.  In most cases we would put in a fake ceiling vent in order to see the register from the platform.

With the platform installed, we’d put the ceiling tiles back in place, clean up the area and put everything back in order like we’d never been there. 

Fortunately, in this store (long since torn down and rebuilt 50 yards away), the space throughout the store above the drop ceiling was expansive.  This was due to the quonset hut style roof that covered the entire store—with series after series of arching spaces about 50 feet wide above the entire drop ceiling.  This structure along with the fire sprinkler piping just above the drop ceiling, allowed for walking on rafters and sprinkler pipes (looking back, the code and safety violations were extensive!) through much of the store above the drop ceiling.

Here is how the surveillance went. 

Continued on Next Page: Retro Surveillance at the Purple Cow

About Vince Regan

Vince Regan, CPP, PSP, PCI is one of the most highly credentialed security professionals in the world. As Voice of Security President, he works full time to inform and educate colleagues in the security industry.

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One Response to Retro Surveillance at the Purple Cow

  1. TG Apr 2, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    From your story, I believe that you are from America, as I haven’t heard of Purple Cow in any other English speaking country. In America, people are allowed guns, and are allowed to shoot guns in the air, as you were outside the main confines of the mall – hiding in the ceiling – (apart from climbing through and standing on important safety systems) weren’t you scared you might be shot! How much were you paid, compared to the amount being stolen? Do you think the staff should have been paid more and have better working conditions?