Ram Berniker's business was built on reputation and referrals, so there's nothing that upsets him more than when he's wrongly accused of making a mistake. It happens more often than he'd like.
The founder of Toronto-based Berniker Enterprises Ltd. ships food from manufactures to his own refrigerated warehouse and, from there, to grocery stores. Items are often loaded and unloaded several times over a few days, and boxes of goods can go missing.
It's easy for companies to blame Mr. Berniker for the lost items, but in many cases it's the manufacturer or the grocery store that's at fault. Sometimes, too few boxes get loaded onto his truck in the first place; other times a store takes off too many pallets, leaving the next store with less food.
If Mr. Berniker can't prove that he and his staff aren't at fault, then he has to pay for the missing items. His character could also take a hit. "We don't advertise, we don't have a website," he says. "… Reliability and reputation are what I survive on. Trust is crucial."
While Mr. Berniker, who has been in business since 1984, kept meticulous records of what was being loaded and unloaded, he could never be 100-per-cent sure that those counts were correct. "I was always relying on something that someone wrote down or on someone's memory," he says.
He needed a foolproof way to keep track of all this activity and, finally in 2006, he found one. He purchased 10 high-definition video cameras and pointed them at his loading dock. That allowed him to see exactly what was happening with each shipment, in such great detail that he can read labels on boxes.
Although video surveillance has been around for decades, it's only been in the past six years that video technology has improved beyond grainy video and VHS tape.
When Ted Eliraz, president of Razko Integrated Security Solutions of Vaughn, Ont., started his company 25 years ago, he sold black and white cameras that didn't record any video. Each one had to be attached to a separate monitor and users had to physically push a button to switch between views. As well, if someone stood in front of a camera for too long, the image would burn itself into the screen.
One of his first clients was the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto. "It was hilarious," he says. "They had 12 cameras each with its own monitor and if you wanted to look at a different area of the store you had to push a button. But that's all we had."
While technology advanced over the years – black and white became colour, video could be recorded and saved to VHS tapes – image quality was often poor and zooming in to see more detail was not possible.
Then, in the early 2000s, video data began to stream over the Internet. Internet protocol (IP) video could be saved on hard drives for months, users could capture activity in high definition and, most importantly for Mr. Berniker, it became possible to zoom in and see minute details on everything from faces to boxes.
Mr. Eliraz's company installed the five-megapixel HD cameras, which were made by Vancouver-based Avigilon Corp., for Berniker Enterprises. Mr. Berniker needed cameras that could not only see how many boxes or pallets were being taken on and off trucks, but also what each package had written on it.
Soon after the cameras were installed, Mr. Berniker received a call from a grocery store owner saying he was missing 85 boxes of frozen chicken. He called Mr. Eliraz and the two of them looked at the video and were able to count all the boxes that were taken off the truck that came from the food supplier. The number matched what had been delivered, so Mr. Berniker wasn't at fault. They were also able to zoom in on the boxes to prove that they were the same goods as what was delivered. "The owner was impressed," says Mr. Eliraz.
These days, HD cameras are used by small businesses to catch shoplifters or by large operations, such as the Rogers Centre stadium in Toronto, to keep an eye on crowds. There are now 29-megapixel cameras that can capture images up to 250 metres away. Business owners can get crystal clear pictures of people's faces, for example.
Not every company needs a suite of cameras, and the cost can be prohibitive (the entire setup for just one camera can cost several thousands of dollars). Many businesses, says Mr. Eliraz, use analog cameras, which can't capture quite the same detail as digital ones, throughout a store, but place HD cameras at cash registers and entrances.
"If you walk in the door I have a good image of you," says Mr. Eliraz. "Then the analog camera can catch you picking up a package of screws in the hardware aisle. I don't need to see your face at that point; I can find you as you're going in and out."
For Mr. Berniker, the camera's main purpose isn't really to keep track of shipments – it's to build trust with his clients. His customers know about the cameras and now call him far less than they used to. "I can demonstrate to the customer visually that I know what I'm talking about," he says. "Our credibility is brought to a level where they now know that they don't need to come and verify."