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Ubiquitous barcode turns 35 years old

The barcode turns 35 years old this week, prompting some retailers to look back and celebrate the ubiquitous symbol designed to help stores speed up the checkout process and keep inventory up to date.

The barcode turns 35 years old this week, prompting some retailers to look back and celebrate the ubiquitous symbol designed to help stores speed up the checkout process and keep inventory up to date.

The  barcode, or the Universal Product Code (UPC) as it is more formally known, is made up of a row of 59 machine-readable black and white bars and 12 plainly readable digits. Both the bars and the digits communicate the same information — what the product is and who made it.

When a cashier scans that information, usually from a sticker on the product, the store's main computer quickly looks up in its database the product's price and transmits it to the cash register.

Today, barcodes are scanned more than 10 billion times a day on consumer packaged goods, apparel, hardware and food services, according to GS1 US, a non-profit organization that administers the UPC.

"The UPC made the modern retail store possible," Rodney McMullen, vice-chair of The Kroger Co., said in a release.

The Kroger Co. operates more than 4,000 stores in different formats and under different names.

"[The UPC] allows us to carry tens of thousands of items in a given store and move shoppers through quickly while offering them many different ways to save money," he said. 

Originally developed to help supermarkets speed up the checkout process, the bar code was first used in 1974 in a Marsh Supermarkets store in Troy, Ohio, when a cashier scanned a package of Wrigley's gum, according to GS1 US.

"Industry would not be as efficient without the UPC," Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, and chair of the GS1 US board of governors, said in a release.

The organization marked the barcode's 35 years earlier this week with a giant UPC-adorned birthday cake for more than 800 attendees at its annual conference in Florida.

According to ConsumerReports.org, the next generation of barcode labels will be even smaller and more capable. In January, barcodes will be able to transmit expiration or best-used-by dates.