Happy Birthday, Bar Code

The bar code is a small thing, but it’s changed our lives in a big way.

Today the ubiquitous Universal Product Code bar code, with its 59 machine-readable black and white lines and 12 digits, officially turns 35. Without the bar code, many supply chains would simply snap — along with tempers in supermarket checkout lanes.

The UPC bar code ranks high on the list of technological innovations that changed not only our economy since the 1970s but our day-to-day lives.

“The UPC (bar code) made the modern retail store possible,” says Rodney McMullen, vice chairman of The Kroger Co., which has more than 4,000 stores across several retail chains. “It allows us to carry tens of thousands of items in a given store and move shippers through quickly while offering them many different ways to save money.”

It’s hard to understate the lowly bar code’s importance to supply chains and global trade.

It changed distribution in much the same way the microchip changed electronics, leading to the development of much more complex supply networks — rather than high-tech products — at a much lower cost. Your diminutive notebook computer, after all, came in a box with a bar code.

Without the bar code, there would be much less supply chain visibility — if any. Radio frequency identification technology has yet to replace bar coding as an inexpensive and easily deployed form of product identification. And although the UPC bar code is used only for products sold in the United States and Canada, it is part of the system of Global Trade Item Numbers used to track goods around the globe.

Now, some things you may not have known (I certainly didn’t):

* The first live use of a UPC bar code took place on June 26, 1974 in Troy, Ohio, when a cashier at a Marsh Supermarkets store scanned a packet of Wrigley’s gum.

* Thirty-five years later, more than 10 billion UPC bar codes are scanned each day.

* More than 200,000 U.S. businesses in 25 industries use UPC bar codes.

* Bar codes save the grocery industry alone more than $17 billion a year, according to one estimate.

* Each UPC bar code has three elements: the brand owner’s company prefix, the specific items reference number and a “check digit” to ensure accuracy.

* All UPC bar codes are administered by one non-profit organization, GS1 US.

“The UPC is really fundamental to commerce,” says Bob Carpenter, CEO of GS1 US, which celebrates the UPC bar code's 35th anniversary today with a giant bar code-shaped cake served up at its annual conference in Orlando.

“It took time to build momentum, but it has succeeded because it benefits everyone: consumers, retailers and manufacturers. And it has a lot of life left in it.”

You may download a colorful history of the UPC and GS1 at www.gs1us.org/overview.

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