Going to the mall may very well be one of America's national pastimes. The experience of browsing, buying or just hanging out is one all customers expect to be positive. Likewise for retailers and the shopping centers they inhabit.

This scenario, however, is easily and frequently disrupted since, as trends indicate, certain kinds of crime are on the rise across the nation. That's why security has become such an important element in the day-to-day operations of shopping centers.

Unfortunately, if consumers don't feel their shopping experience is a safe one, that means trouble for the shopping center. Even frequent employee turnover can be linked to an unprotected environment where grounds, parking areas or halls can be a source of alarm. Burglaries, assaults and theft inside or outside shopping centers are enough to make a customer turn away for good.

Sensing the opportunity, Boca Raton, Fla.-based Sensormatic Electronics Corp. stepped in to fill shopping center owners' and managers' needs and to consolidate its role as industry leader in the arena of security technologies.

With safety and security playing a critical role in the day-to-day operation of a shopping center's business, there's a growing need for integrated security products and systems like the ones made by Sensormatic Electronics.

Securing a mall One user and fan of the company's products is The Mall at Cortana, a 1.6 million sq. ft. shopping center in Baton Rouge, La. From the time the mall opened in 1976, until the early 1990s when a whole shopping district had evolved around it, no dramatic safety measures had been necessary. But in 1995, that all changed. The mall installed a comprehensive security system that included closed-circuit television (CCTV) - and Sensormatic's VM96 camera control system.

"Management and the mall's owners decided that because of the trends in rising crime, it was time to re-evaluate security," recalls Percy Singleton Jr., the mall's security director. "So, we started looking for companies that were the trend-setters, that had the technology and the experience of dealing with closed-circuit camera systems. No doubt about it, Sensormatic was one of the better companies." Its products, he adds, are "user friendly, and whenever we've had a problem, there's been technical support."

With the camera system in place at The Mall at Cortana, monitoring indoor and outdoor facilities, and other steps taken by the center, such as a security information booth inside the mall and bicycle patrols, incidents dropped tremendously. "These measures do work," states Singleton. And they make economic sense.

"It's very hard to measure what you would have lost had you not had these systems in place," he continues. "But, in talking to shoppers and tenants, we know we've saved a tremendous amount of money over the years as a result of purchasing the Sensormatic system."

Cutting-edge security Key to the success of Sensormatic's crucial retail/shopping center operations is the development of new technologies. The company is constantly upgrading systems to allow for more security in shopping environments.

"Since 1996, we've had double-digit increases every year. We experienced an 85% jump in revenue in just the past three years," says Pete Schmidt, product sales support manager of CCTV for Sensormatic's North America Retail division. "CCTV has evolved, stepping out of its box to become a management tool for running a business."

Forget about the old, cumbersome and ever-so-obvious cameras of yesteryear (although, interestingly enough, some customers still prefer them, precisely for their conspicuous look). Now, CCTV systems can perform numerous functions never imagined a short time back, from identifying a purse snatcher in seconds to viewing numerous properties from a single remote location. The advantages are endless. Who set off the alarm after hours? Has new signage been installed properly? CCTV aids in traffic studies, problem detection and alarm operations.

"In the past two years, there has been an incredible increase in the use of CCTV," affirms Schmidt.

Alarming statistics There is good reason for the growing trend toward advanced CCTV systems, especially when safety issues are raised. According to a recent survey by the United States Department of Justice, more than 750,000 violent crimes (rape, robbery and assault) have occurred in parking lots and garages across the nation.

Other studies indicate that more than 40% of security lawsuits against retail and mall owners were filed due to parking lot crimes, with one in three cases resulting in a judgment against the owner. Average size of the settlement? $1.2 million. That's where the capabilities of CCTV and other Sensormatic products come in.

"People want to feel safe where they shop, and malls don't need adverse publicity, even if it's a thing they can't control," says Schmidt. "This has fueled the growth of CCTV."

System integration There are a number of security technology providers in the marketplace. But, as Sensormatic product and support manager Lisa Ciappetta explains, "Sensormatic has a distinct advantage over others."

"For the most part, all of our competitors have variations of similar systems," she says. "But we are a one-stop shop - a manufacturer and designer all in one. We design our own systems and integrate them together. Plus, we have a system that is unique in the industry, our Intellex[superscript]r Digital Video Recorder with Smart Search."

The Intellex product is a PC-based surveillance camera system that uses digital technology instead of a videotape to store images on a hard disk. This makes it easier to search through the stored images for suspicious activity. In seconds, the user can locate the events selected and save hours normally spent searching manually through analog VCR tapes. Images from as many as 16 cameras can be displayed and recorded to one Intellex unit and monitor at a time, and even saved on the small digital tapes known as DATs. With these, there is no loss of data over time because, unlike VCR tapes, there is no degeneration. Intellex also sets another standard by allowing the user to view live video while simultaneously recording events to the hard drive.

Ciappetta explains that the groundbreaking Intellex was developed by Sensormatic's Video Products Division, in California, and released in 1997. Since then, government facilities, embassies and banks have embraced it. And there is more in store for the future.

"In the future, you will be able to control CCTV cameras over the Internet," states Don Taylor, Sensormatic's director of market planning for the North America Retail business unit, also based in Boca Raton. "Our customers want this capability, and we will deliver it."

Many of the company's product-development efforts are customer driven and fill a specific need. An example of a customer need addressed by Sensormatic is the development of a smaller, less obvious outdoor SpeedDome[superscript]r camera for professional surveillance.

"It was clear that there was an issue with regard to safety in parking lots," says Taylor. "Retailers and mall operators wanted a smaller product, less obtrusive, easier to install and cheaper. We went back to our product companies and successfully developed a dome according to those characteristics."

Now in its 33rd year of business, Sensormatic continues to offer solutions that maintain its competitive edge.

"People can't believe what this technology can do," says Mary Martin, softgoods market manager for Sensormatic. "When we go to trade shows, for example, and demonstrate our products, they are really an eye-opener."

Security equals peace of mind But besides the wonders Sensormatic products can accomplish, Martin believes there's one major factor that convinces shopping center management it makes sense to be secure. "Peace of mind. That's what everyone is looking for, from mall owners to customers," she says. "A facility that cares about safety is a facility that cares about shoppers, because it makes thei r environment a safe one."

Technological and social issues come into play when dealing with security and safety. From a technological standpoint, says Taylor, it is crucial to make products smarter. On the social front, a problem arises with employee turnover, a growing phenomenon in this economy.

"So, we have to make our products easier to use. We have to be able to control our systems, our cameras, from a remote location, bypassing areas where there is no manpower to do that," he says. "That's one of our challenges."

Societal shifts The type of social atmosphere that exists now is dramatically different from that of even 10 or 15 years ago. A recognition for safety in shopping areas is becoming even more ingrained from the start in construction plans. With the expansion of malls into massive entertainment centers, elements of risk and safety increase.

Of course, with bigger problems, shopping center management wants bigger solutions, such as more effective, faster and accessible security technology. Sensormatic is providing these solutions today, along with the only nationwide direct service operation in the industry.

Sensormatic was able to put to use its most advanced security systems at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. The company came on board to plan, develop, integrate and install the electronic security system. As a result, the Games had the largest amount of multimedia surveillance equipment in the world to cover miles of grounds and facilities. Equipment in-cluded: microprocessor-controlled SpeedDome[superscript]r cameras to instantly capture events, whether crowd movements or shoplifting; Sensormatic's VRS-2000[superscript]r, which integrated security, building and communication functions; and Sen-sorLink[superscript]tm, providing phone-line video transmission systems.

"Our successful Olympics installation clearly shows that our technology is the best in the industry," says Martin. "It keeps getting smaller and more sophisticated, and it is user friendly. The bottom line always is to take security to the next level and make the systems better."

Luckily, shopping center owners and managers won't have to wait too long for many of these options. It's just a matter of time before their use becomes more widespread.