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In June 1974, a 31-year-old cashier named Sharon Buchan who worked at the checkout counter of Marsh’s Supermarket took a 10-pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum and glided it across a laser scanner. A price of $0.67 popped up, the customer paid and just like that… the barcode was officially born.
Nowadays, we’re so accustomed to a high standard of convenience that we barely take the time to appreciate just how fast and efficient the barcode has made retail store check out. What used to take 10 to 20 seconds per product is now virtually instantaneous, enabling you to process an entire shopping cart’s worth of groceries in just a few minutes.
This is what we see from the customer’s side of the till. What we may not appreciate is the suite of other benefits barcode technology has brought to the retail and manufacturing industry. For one, the barcode has lowered the price of every product on the shelves simply because the much improved efficiency it allows for has enabled retailers to cut down on their costs. This is only the tip of the iceberg but before we delve into just how the barcode has revolutionized the manufacturing and retailing industries, let’s look at how it came to be…
1948 – Joseph Woodland Draws a Line in the Sand and the Concept of the Barcode is Born
The steps leading up to that auspicious day in the town of Troy, Ohio, were many and it all began 26 years earlier with Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute graduate, Joseph Woodland who had already proven himself somewhat of a tech wizard and an adept problem solver. Woodland’s accomplishments ranged in prestige from improving an elevator music playing system to having worked on the infamous Manhattan Project during World War II, the endeavor behind the atomic bomb.
In 1948, with the War having just been declared over, Woodland found himself with a new quandary and one that had been posed to him by a local retailer. The checkout process at grocery stores was terribly tedious and time-consuming. Is there a way it could be automated? He was consumed by this conundrum and yet, he didn’t come up with a concept until one day whilst visiting his parents in Miami.
Sitting on the beach, Woodland was reportedly running his fingers in the sand when an answer occurred to him. Every single product on the supermarket shelves could be assigned a unique array of thick and thin lines, which would provide an encoded description for that product. Similar in concept to Morse code, yet using lines instead of dots.
He envisioned a zebra-striped bull’s-eye barcode of sorts that would be read and decoded by a machine that would then spit out the corresponding price. Unfortunately, Woodland was a little ahead of his time. The technology available for such a feat would have been far too costly for it to be feasible and computers and lasers were yet to be innovated.
The Barcode Concept Advanced
Over the ensuing decades, the concept of the barcode was furthered quite independently by developers who knew nothing of Woodland’s initial “Eureka!” moment there on the sand of Miami Beach. In the 1950’s, David Collins, an engineer, painted thick and thin stripes on railway cars, which enabled them to be automatically read by a trackside scanner as the train passed by.
Then, in the early 1970’s, another engineer, George Laurer totally redefined the bull’s-eye barcode by developing a more compact rectangular barcode. He also designed and built a system of computers and lasers that could read the new rectangular barcodes. This system was so sophisticated for its time that it could read and process labeled beanbags that were being tossed over the scanner by workmen. This invention was essentially the technological fruition of Joseph Woodland’s initial concept.
America’s Grocers and Producers Define a Pan-industry Product Barcode
Towards the end of 1969, the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) and the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) met to define a product barcode system that could be applicable across the industry. After much quibbling – and it would take several years of endless committees before a consensus was reached – the American food and grocery industry finally agreed upon the UPC… the universal product code.
This brings us right back to Troy, Ohio, and to the checkout counter of Marsh’s Supermarket, where the very first barcode was born.
The Spread of Barcode Technology
You would think that retail stores would have snapped up this major breakthrough across the country within seconds of it becoming commercially available, but it was decades before the barcode system became universally adopted. Why? Because the scanning technology was costly and it was even costlier to have the packaging of every product on the shelves redesigned with barcodes.
This brought both industries to a kind of Mexican standoff: Manufacturers were reluctant to initiate such a redesign until all retailers came on board with the new barcode system and invested in scanners. Retailers didn’t want to buy costly scanners until the manufacturers had redesigned their products with barcodes.
Compounding the issue was the fact that, while big, busy supermarkets could benefit tremendously from this technology, smaller family-run retail stores viewed the barcode scanner as an expensive solution to a problem they really didn’t have. But over time, the benefits of barcode scanners won out against the resistance of the smaller retailers and the technology became increasingly pervasive over the ensuing decades.
The Benefits of the Barcode System
Barcode scanners were initially expensive to install, but supermarkets could absorb the cost by the increasing sales this technology allowed for. Shorter queues, greater convenience and reduced product prices attracted more customers to the larger stores. Barcode scanners also allowed these stores to keep track of inventory and prevent in-store theft by sticky-fingered cashiers who used to be able to slip money from customers into their pockets without ringing it up on a traditional cash register.
During the 1970’s, which saw inflation in America skyrocket, the barcode scanner system enabled retailers to change the prices of their products by simply pinning new price tags to the shelves rather than relabeling each and every individual product. This saved time and lowered operating costs. This system also provided the data necessary to launch customer databases and loyalty cards, which further encouraged business.
Over the 1970’s and 80’s the barcode system proved its worth in a myriad of ways. By automating and tracking inventory, supermarkets could start to introduce just-in-time deliveries. It also made stocking a wide variety of products – and not just groceries – far more affordable. What used to be a massive, logistically complicated and diversified operation now became easy to manage and track. And so the traditional supermarkets started stocking electronics, clothes, flower and other generalized household items. The barcode system essentially led to the conception of the general store.
Wal-Mart -The Epitome of What the Barcode has done for the Manufacturing and Retailing Industries
In 1988, the department store Wal-Mart, which was one of the earliest adopters of barcode technology, decided to start selling food. Today, you can literally build, furnish and stock a fully functioning house with the items sold by these goliath supermarkets. Wal-Mart is the largest general retailer on Earth and it wins this title by hundreds of miles. It’s fair to say that Wal-Mart came this far because it has continued to invest in state-of-the-art computer-driven inventory and logistics management… technology that makes it easy and cost and time-efficient to manage the large-scale flow of a staggering variety of products.
This in itself opened a major channel between Chinese manufacturers and American consumers. And it all started with Joseph Woodland’s innocent doodles in Miami Beach sand and with the hard work and toil of engineers like George Laurer as they sought to perfect the barcode.
Today, every product on the shelves of every retail store and every box in every factory and manufacturer’s warehouse bears a barcode badge with its distinctive black-and-white stripes. A corresponding array of handheld barcode scanning technology has been developed and continuously improved for faster, more efficient and comfortable operation. So, the next time you peruse the shelves of your local supermarket or retail store, take a look at that barcode and remember how it all started. Take a moment to appreciate how this clever little item of engineering has fundamentally altered the world’s economy.