Four Decades Later, the UPC Barcode Is Still Reshaping Retail

The recent death of Alan Haberman, who chaired the industry committee that led the charge to standardize the universal product code, or UPC, symbol in 1973, shines a spotlight on just how much the introduction of the bar code transformed retailing and the American shopping experience.

By the 1970s, supermarket chains were expanding at an exponential rate to serve the growth of suburbia. In turn, grocers were seeking ways to automate checkout as well as their inventory management. The bar code was revolutionary for its ability to track inventory.ScannerIn the early 1970s, a committee was selected to standardize the system. The UPC system Haberman and the committee selected -- the one still in use today -- was created by an IBM engineer, George Laurer. Laurer's system, alongside the related roll out of scanners, created a product tracking system that allowed stores to instantly know what products were sold.

Here's how it works, as explained by the A. James Clark School of Engineering, which inducted Laurer into its hall of fame in 1991 for developing the UPC code (as well as other inventions): "As items are presented to the check-out clerk, they are passed over an optical laser scanner, which reads the UPC symbol. The scanner decodes the symbol into the UPC code number and transmits this number to a computer where price and other information on the item are stored."

The new system also enabled retailers to automate inventory control and automate product replenishment, and helped merchants better market their products because they had a clearer sense of what was selling and what wasn't. (Up to the early 70s, it wasn't until retailers conducted a manual inventory of their store merchandise that they knew what items had been sold.)

In 1974, the barcode made its debut on a package of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum at a Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Mich. Nearly 40 years later, the barcode, which changed the face of retailing nationwide, is still redefining the way people shop. And these days, it's helping us save money, too.

As smart phones become mainstream, consumers are increasingly turning to mobile apps that enable shoppers to scan a product's barcode in stores with their mobile device to find the store with the lowest price on that item, as well as to access customer ratings and reviews on the item.

Barcode, you've come a long way, baby!
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