Speedy Barcodes

UPC Barcodes Keep the Retail Economy Humming

Category : Barcodes & Business, UPC Codes · by Mar 7th, 2014

If you visit any retail shop on a regular basis, you’re most likely well acquainted with the UPC barcodes on the back of product packaging. In fact, barcodes are some commonplace, we may overlook the significance and value of this technology that keeps our retail economy humming, with the ‘beep, beep, beep’ from the barcode scanner.

Most retailers – from grocery stores to big-box superstores – depend on UPC barcodes to track items in their stores, reduce human error and speed the transaction process with customers. “UPC” stands for Universal Product Code and is a 1D (linear) code with the typical ‘picket fence’ style most people are familiar with. This type of barcode is commonly used in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries. The most common form, the UPC-A, consists of 12 numerical digits, which are uniquely assigned to each trade item.


History of the UPC

The beginnings of the UPC barcode kicked off in 1932 when Harvard business student Wallace Flint wrote about a punched card system in his master’s thesis, where each card represented a product in the store. Unfortunately, it did not catch on.

Later in 1970, a group of grocery industry trade associations formed the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council to define the numerical format of the Uniform Product Code. Technology firms, including names you might recognize like IBM and RCA, proposed alternative symbol representations to the council, many of whom had been working on the barcode technology for decades. In the end, the council chose a slightly modified version of the IBM proposal, developed by IBM’s George Laurer, giving it the name we use today. Laurer is now considered the inventor of the UPC.

Pop quiz: The first UPC-marked item ever scanned at a retail checkout was a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit in 1974 at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The pack of gum is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.


Creative Uses for the Barcode           

Today, FedEx is one of the world’s largest users of the barcode. Yet over the years, there have been many creative uses for the barcode, including the following:

  • Tracking Bees. Dr. Stephen Buchmann of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona, wanted to find a way to track bees when they left the hive. He needed to know how far bees fly to find pollen, how long they’re gone and how often they leave and return to the hive. So, he created the world’s smallest barcode on a paper label 1/20th the weight of the pollen a bee carries, shaped to fit a bee’s thorax. A laser scanner mounted over the tunnel-shaped entrance to the hive then recorded their activities. (Source: The New York Times).
  • Tracking Boats. The US army uses 2ft-long barcodes to label 50ft boats which are in storage at its West Point military academy in New York. These huge barcodes store information about the boats’ previous travels. (Source: The Free Library).
  • Tracking Patient Identification. In the healthcare industry, barcodes used in the patient admittance process, to track medication and care admission, and identify patients throughout their entire stay. Barcode wristbands are typically created at the point of admission and updated continually on the patients’ needs. (Source: Health Management Technology).

They are also used to keep track of rental cars, airline luggage and even nuclear waste. Barcoded tickets allow attendees to enter sporting events, movie theaters, fairgrounds and public transportation.

Based on enthusiastic adoption around the world, barcodes such as the UPC have become a universal element of the modern world. While other systems have entered the automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) market, the simplicity, universality and low cost of barcodes have remained a standard in the retail industry over 40 years after the introduction of the first commercial barcode. They have also paved the way for related technologies including RFID and QR codes.


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