• Barcode Ireland Team

The revolutionary barcode

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Just how did the barcode revolutionise the retail and manufacturing industries?

Supermarket. Grocery store. Retail store.

The birth of the barcode

In 1948, Norman Joseph Woodland a graduate of the Drexel Institute of Technology, Philadelphia, was tasked by a large retailer with innovating a method of automating the tedious checkout process. Woodland, already a very accomplished inventor worked on improving the elevator music system and on the infamous Manhattan Project during WW11.

Woodland had a eureka moment based on the morse code he learned as a boy scout sitting on a Florida beach whilst visiting his grandparents:

“…I was thinking about dots and dashes when I poked my four fingers into the sand and, for whatever reason… I pulled my hand toward me and I had four lines… Now I have four lines and they could be wide lines and narrow lines, instead of dots and dashes… Then, only seconds later, I took my four fingers… and I swept them round into a circle.”

The concept of a bull’s-eye symbology was envisioned that would enable product data to be stored and read by machine. Although viable, the technology was prohibitively expensive. Only as computers advanced and lasers were invented did it become more realistic.

The striped barcode underwent many iterations over time. In the 1950’s David Collins an MIT graduate devised a system using blue and red reflective stripes that were painted on steel plates and riveted in various combinations on the sides of railroad cars. A rail side scanner tracked the cars as they moved past.

In the 1970’s, based on Woodlands Bull’s-eye barcode an IBM engineer George Laurer developed a more compact barcode in the form of a rectangle. Alongside, he built and designed a sophisticated system of computers and lasers that could read the barcode at lightening speeds.

Retailers versus Manufacturers

In September 1969, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) and the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) met to define a pan-industry product code.

The GMA wanted an 11-digit code to encompass the various labelling schemes they were already using. The NAFC wanted a seven-digit code which could be read by simpler and cheaper checkout systems. Years and innumerable committees, subcommittees and ad hoc committees later, consensus was reached and the US grocery industry agreed upon a standard for the universal product code or the UPC.

The first UPC barcode to ever be scanned in retail was in June 1974 at the checkout of Marsh's Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, where checkout assistant Sharon Buchanan swiped a 10-pack of 50 sticks of Wrigley's juicy fruit chewing gum across a laser scanner automatically registering the price of $0.67.

The modern day barcode system was born but it was decades before universal adoption. This was because scanning technology was expensive and it was even more expensive to have the packaging of every product on the shelves redesigned with barcodes.

This led to a Mexican standoff between retailers and manufacturers - retailers did not want to install scanners until the manufacturers had put barcodes on their products. Manufacturers did not want to put barcodes on all their products until the retailers had adopted the barcode system and installed scanners. Compounding this, the barcode system favoured a certain type of retailer. Large, busy retailers benefited tremendously with shorter queues and the efficient tracking of inventory - the cost of this technology spread over increased sales. The small convenience store or grocer viewed scanners as an unnecessary expense - the answer to a problem they did not have.

But the barcode eventually won the day with their manifold benefits. Theft was obviated as cashiers could not easily gyp the system. In the late 1970’s, a time of high inflation in the US, retailers were able to reprice items on the shelf as opposed to on each item saving time and expense.

Benefits of scale

The spread of barcodes in the 1970’s and 1980’s allowed for the expansion of large retailers. The barcode system created customer databases and launched loyalty cards. Automating and tracking of inventory allowed for the introduction of just-in-time deliveries and the reduced cost of stocking a large array of products. What used to be a mammoth task of tracking a diversified operation was now efficient and easy. Supermarkets began to stock a greater variety of household items - the barcode in effect lead to the concept of the general store.

Walmart is the epitome of what the barcode has done for retail and manufacturing. In 1988 Walmart, an early adopter of the barcode, started selling food and is now the worlds largest general retailer. They continue to invest heavily in cutting edge technology and computer driven logistics management.

The company is now a conduit between Chinese manufacturers and American consumers. Embracing technology has propelled their growth into a vast behemoth that can commission cheap products in bulk. Symbiotically, Chinese manufacturers are willing to set up a production line for just one customer as long as its Walmart!

The barcode is a feat of engineering that has transformed not only the retail and manufacturing industries but the world economy.

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