Two-way radio for retailers
Written by: Kate O’Flaherty | Published:

The new capabilities offered by today’s digital radios are increasingly being enlisted in the battle to keep the high street open and to cut retailers’ costs, as Kate O’Flaherty discovers

Two-way radios have been used by the retail industry for decades. But in recent years, the shift from analogue to digital has fuelled a major jump in the devices’ functionality.

Among the applications now available are RFID guard patrol, location-based services, job tasking and dynamic grouping. In shopping centres, many radio applications focus on safety and security. This is set against a backdrop of tighter regulation around accident compensation, as well as fears the centres could be targeted by terrorists.

As centre manager at High Chelmer in Chelmsford, Michael McDonagh must be aware of these issues. The shopping centre, which is comprised of 75 stores plus restaurants and nightclubs, serves 8.6 million customers a year and can become a victim of retail theft, crime incidents and slips, trips and falls.

McDonagh is a self-confessed Motorola Solutions fan who says he once threw one of the manufacturer’s radios across a meeting room to test its robustness.

To better deal with the 700 security incidents it sees each year, High Chelmer has upgraded to a TRBOnet Enterprise IP connected to a single repeater supplied by the shopping centre’s dealer, DCRS, and sourced from RadioTrade, a two-way radio distributor.

As part of this, High Chelmer has also deployed 20 iBeacons dotted around the centre both internally and externally, utilising Motorola’s TRBOnet. “We have recently invested £500,000 on on-site toilets, which need patrolling and maintaining,” says McDonagh. “All these outreach areas are auto-enabled with iBeacons, which means I can provide information to insurers in the event of a slip, trip or fall.”

The centre is also going through a counter-terrorism survey and has invested in remotely controlled gates to protect staff and the public. In addition to three body-worn cameras that can be used in the event of an incident, High Chelmer has deployed 54 CCTV cameras around the 450,000 sq ft centre.

When using its radios, High Chelmer takes advantage of covert communication on-site so the team are hands-free in case of any physical altercations. This also means members of the public or third parties cannot listen in on confidential communications.

Another fascinating aspect of the radios, according to McDonagh, is that customer service managers can hear and record all radio communication via their office PC and can type messages to individual – or all – radios. “We are now looking at pocket PDAs because it is extremely difficult to take the radio out of the holster as individuals are ‘wired up’ via the chest, mic and earpiece,” he adds.

DCRS helped High Chemer integrate all the kit worn by its staff. “The staff carry a lot of equipment, including body cameras and a penlight, so the utility belt was getting cumbersome. On top of that, the system has to be maintained, paid for, and software can have issues, which is more to worry about. When DCRS said they could take over the management of this, we jumped at the chance.”

Innovating through radio
Another shopping centre innovating through its radio system is Bluewater. The Dartford-based site is using the Chatterbox Alarm Location Monitoring (CALM+) digital radio system featuring voice in addition to messaging so it can discreetly communicate alerts to stores, restaurants and staff.

Bluewater has three key communication systems designed to ensure a quick response to all incidents. For example, radio users can raise an alert by pressing a panic button, and radios are programmed for ‘man down’ or ‘lone worker’ scenarios.

In addition, radio users’ movements are monitored in real time on screen via beacons inside the centre and by GPS externally. This allows staff to be deployed effectively, sending the nearest cleaner to a spillage and co-ordinating staff during an evacuation.

This type of application is increasingly popular among shopping centres – which is why PMR Products has written an app to go with Hytera radios centred around people and asset location, says Ola Gwozdz, head of innovation and business development at the radio reseller. She says this has so far been “very successful” in the retail industry and has been deployed in more than 60 shopping centres across the UK.

Gwozdz cites the example of the Cabot Circus shopping centre in Bristol. “Our system, which combines TETRA and DMR, has been there since 2009. TETRA is used by security for mission-critical activities and it has indoor and outdoor location-based GPS. The retailers are using Hytera radios and we have written a piece of software that combines the two systems at the control room, so you can integrate both.”

In partnership with Hytera, PMR Products has also inserted a microchip inside the radios. “It talks to the radios and network of beacons giving people’s locations in real time,” Gwozdz says. “Combining this with GPS, you can track someone within the store’s perimeter.”

Features such as these are seeing radios further improving safety in shopping centres, but there are still issues that must be overcome. Good coverage can be a challenge, concedes Mike Browne, owner of radio dealer STS Communications. This is especially true in shopping centres, he says, citing the example of his client West Quay in Southampton, which is comprised of nine levels including a multi-storey car park separated by a bridge.

This was a particular issue when West Quay decided to roll out an indoor tracking system. “GPS does not work inside shopping centres; only in car parks,” Browne says. “There are problems with latency, for example. But an indoor tracking system based on beacons sends a signal and connects with the radio. I think people are looking seriously at this because it’s a way of doing away with guard control systems. It also gives them the ability to know where people are in the event of an incident.”

But overall, modern construction techniques can be “a real pain in the neck”, says Browne. He explains: “Cavity insulation consists of Celotex – two sheets of aluminium foil, which is the perfect screen. Also, lots of centres feature glass, and this can be coated with metal film used for a sun filter or to self-clean: it’s a metallised product that can cause issues.”

Adding to complexity, getting coverage in a shopping centre is not just needed for front of house, says Gary Leatherby, managing director at Chatterbox. “Everywhere maintenance will go, we need coverage. But it’s also redundancy – we are often putting in a second system in case the first lot goes down. We use repeater base stations, antennas and hardware and software for the dispatcher. Some shopping centres will have a duplicate control room so they can evacuate and go to another part of the building.”

So, in an age of growing connectivity, are shopping centres building in distributed antenna systems for consumers and retailers from the start? According to most industry experts interviewed by Land Mobile, no. “People construct the building and then realise they need a radio,” says Leatherby. “It’s very difficult.”

However, McDonagh says that new shopping centres often do build connectivity in from day one. “New shopping centres will link systems to the customer service suite to allow them to instantaneously communicate.”

Wider retail
Shopping centres are not the only retailers to benefit from advancements in two-way radio. The devices are also being used to increase efficiency in stores. In an age when the high street is declining, the main challenge for bricks-and-mortar retailers is cost, says Gwozdz. However, she says: “Any solution that can offer a reduction in operational costs as well as better health and safety then becomes a great opportunity.”

This is especially true for in-store retail. Take, for example, Tesco’s mobile printing solution from Zebra Technologies, which it says increases flexibility and keeps queuing to a minimum. The Zebra QL220s, deployed through specialist retail integrator Herbert Retail, were chosen as robust label printers that could allow simple, seamless, real-time integration into Tesco’s 802.11B wireless network. The markdown solution can scan products on the shop floor to obtain real-time pricing information on reduced items and produce nearing its expiration date.

PMR446 radios are often used in stores. However, these are not always suitable for a busy retail environment. One of the biggest issues is that the radios can be listened into by other stores.

Unlicensed radios can be unsuitable for retail communications because everyone is using the same frequencies and someone might overhear one of the other eight channels, says Sean Fitzgerald, solutions marketing manager at Motorola Solutions.

Licenced digital radios are much more functional: they allow retailers to talk to groups of people such as certain floors or departments and allow users to send pre-programmed texts. “With licensed radios, stores tend to group them by department, floor or function,” says Fitzgerald.

Therefore, Fitzgerald says, PMR446 radios work well in individual stores; less so in busier retail environments and shopping malls: “The PMR radios don’t tend to be up to the task of a big shopping centre, so you get a situation where management has a DMR system and retailers have their own – such as coffee houses and shoe shops.”

However, as long as retailers are looking for a voice solution, radio fits the bill perfectly, according to Andy Wilson, managing director of Syndico. “It’s cheap, it’s ready to deploy; there really is no downside.

“Where we fall over in our market is when they want a complex solution like RFID – no-one can offer that at the moment. As an industry, we have managed to confuse the retailer by offering complex solutions when all retailers wanted was push-to-talk.”

In fact, PMR446 works because of its simplicity, says Wilson. “It’s much more competitive in a retail environment these days. Using these radios makes the customer experience better as sales assistants don’t have to leave the customer to check on stock. It also saves time and therefore increases efficiency.”

The benefit of unlicensed radios is they are cheaper, says Fitzgerald. However, they don’t have the functionality of the licensed devices: “They really just talk to each other.”

For example, licensed radios are more useful if there is an incident, Fitzgerald says: “Post-event, you can use the data to analyse what happens for staff training and it provides an audit trail or evidence. You can have it time-stamped, date-stamped and location-stamped.”

Shop watch schemes
Another interesting area where two-way radios are used in retail is so-called ‘shop watch’ schemes in towns. Gwozdz cites the example of such a scheme in Brighton – a wide coverage area system across Brighton and Hove using Hytera DMR repeaters and radios. Gwozdz explains: “If you go out in Brighton during the day, retailers can communicate with each other if there’s a suspicious person going from one store to another. They have prevented a number of crimes on a daily basis simply through radio communications.”

The two-way radios allow businesses to hear each other, with the system separated into four different channels. The deployment sees about 300 Hytera radios in use among the retailers – 600 when nightclubs are included.

Lisa Perretta is business crime reduction manager for the Brighton and Hove Business Crime Reduction Partnership. As part of its programme to protect retailers, businesses pay a subscription fee for a two-way radio and other benefits, she says.

Much of the programme centres around shoplifting, and Brighton members have a free app called DISC that provides the ability to upload CCTV. The app is live and very soon it will be able to directly submit electronic crime reports, avoiding time spent on 101 calls in the event of an incident.

The programme also has four security guards who carry body-worn cameras. This is in addition to a local Sainsbury’s programme launched in August, which sees the retailer’s security guards involved in ‘community guarding’. “They are there to spot people who might be vulnerable and protect the public,” Perretta says.

A recent upgrade to digital radios has been a success, adding new features such as GPS to track where security guards are. But the radios can have issues when compared to analogue, says Perretta. “With digital, the signal is all or nothing. When using analogue, the signal can be bad in certain situations, but it gradually fades out.”

Across the retail sector as a whole, the most obvious challenges are coverage and interference, says Gwozdz. In shopping centres and smaller shops, buildings built with glass and reflective materials cause one of the biggest challenges for radio because they reflect the signal.

“Then, in London, lots is underground and you need more robust DAS and possibly leaky feeders. In addition, multiple digital devices are in use: everything emanates some kind of radio signal, including things like advertising screens.”

Especially in central London, it can be a challenge to access frequency at all. Therefore, Gwozdz says: “Systems that operate on Wi-Fi seem to be something people are looking into.”

Body-worn cameras in retail
Applications and devices are making two-way radios more efficient in retail. Used alongside radios, body-worn cameras are one device predicted to transform retail security over the coming years.

According to The Mall Blackburn’s soft service manager Ronnie O’Keeffe, its introduction of body-worn cameras three years agohas resulted in a 60 per cent drop in anti-social behaviour and a 20 per cent reduction in verbal abuse against its officers. The Mall is part of Blackburn Business Against Crime (BBAC), a retail consortium, which has over 100 members and uses Icom radios supplied by Lancashire based radio dealer, Radio Service.

Chatterbox says it is selling and hiring body-worn cameras and is taking part in a number of trials of the devices in shopping centres. The company is confident the technology will complement radio deployments in the future.

“A huge percentage of our customers who use radio will need a body-worn camera. I would be surprised if every security guard didn’t have one within a year,” Gary Leatherby, managing director of Chatterbox, says.

Meanwhile, Hytera is trialling its new remote video speaker microphone solution with a number of retail locations to create a flexible bodycam for situational awareness and evidence capture, according to Robert Green, marketing manager at the company.

There are obstacles to be overcome, but a growing number of digital radio applications are improving safety, security and efficiency across retail. In the future, experts say improvements in analytics tools will make shopping centres and stores even more effective.

For example, Gwozdz says: “Analytical tools allow us to see the patterns that happen inside shopping centres such as footfall, and we can pinpoint which days accidents happen. Retailers can then use this information to decide whether to deploy extra security.”

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