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How the barcode, age 45, changed retailing

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Back in 1974, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign from office. Writer Steven King published his first novel. The Sears Tower in Chicago became the world’s tallest building.

And in another first that year, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum was scanned at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

Although little appreciated by many people at the time, the debut of the Universal Product Code (UPC) and barcode scanning would have a big impact on the retail industry and on the way people shop.

“Since being introduced in the grocery sector, the barcode has enabled countless modern conveniences for consumers and paved the way for emerging technologies,” says Bob Carpenter, president and chief executive officer of GS1 US. “From same-day delivery to patient bedside scanning that ensures administration of the proper medication, millions of transactions and processes would not be possible without barcodes and the underlying standards that uniquely identify products, services, locations and more in real time. Very few other technologies have remained as relevant over four decades, nor have they grown in versatility.”

The Uniform Product Code Council, later named GS1, was the designated administrator of barcode standards in 1974. It helped brand owners use barcodes and a numbering system — now known as GS1 Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) — to uniquely identify their products at point-of-sale, giving access to price information.

For retailers, the initial appeal was efficiency. All but the best cashiers could scan a barcode faster than they could enter a price using the keys on a cash register. The UPC system also helped improve inventory management and keep shelves stocked and allow for lower pricing due to gained efficiencies. It was only later that retailers began to realize and take advantage of another benefit of barcode scanning — its potential for capturing data.

Today, at age 45, UPC barcodes remain ubiquitous. GS1 estimates that a barcode is scanned more than 6 billion times daily. And while specialized versions have been developed, a vintage barcode would not look dramatically out of place on a store shelf today. The same cannot be said of the first mobile phones, which debuted in 1973.


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