45 Years After Retail Debut, GS1 Barcode Stands Strong

Scanned six billion times daily around the world, the barcode continues its relevance as the backbone of commerce.

As technology continues to expand and improve, it is fitting to take a moment to consider one of the cornerstones of today's technology: the UPC barcode, for which administrator GS1 US, celebrated the 45th anniversary of its debut and first scan in June. On June 26, 1974, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum carrying a Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio – marking the beginning of the modern shopping experience. According to GS1, today, the barcode is scanned more than six billion times daily and continues to be one of the most trusted symbols in the world, powering global commerce.

“Since being introduced in the grocery sector, the barcode has enabled countless modern conveniences for consumers and paved the way for emerging technologies,” said GS1 US President and CEO Bob Carpenter. “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.”

As explained by GS1: The first barcode scan was the culmination of years of collaboration by inventors and the grocery industry to minimize long supermarket checkout lines. Brands and retailers needed a method to automatically capture product information, reduce human error, and manage the influx of post-World War II baby-boom shoppers. While inventor Norman Joseph Woodland and classmate Bernard Silver developed the first barcode concept — a circular, bullseye-shaped design that incorporated lines and spaces — in 1973, the grocery industry selected the linear UPC barcode as the preferred standard, created by IBM engineer George Lauer. The Uniform Product Code Council, later named GS1, was the designated administrator of barcode standards in 1974, and helped brand owners use barcodes and a numbering system — today known as GS1 Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) — to uniquely identify their products at point-of-sale, giving access to price information. This system also helped enhance inventory management to keep shelves stocked and allow for lower pricing due to gained efficiencies.

Since the original UPC, product identification standards (now GS1 Standards) have grown into a global system, used by more than two million companies doing business in 150 countries across 25 industries. Additionally, multiple versions and uses of the barcode have been created to fit modern requirements and convey more data using the same numbering system. QR codes, for example, evolved to provide consumers with detailed product information and support mobile scanning applications. Also, radio frequency identification (RFID) has provided retailers the ability to locate specific items in stock and more purchase flexibility such as buy online pick-up in store. Other advanced barcodes help to locate products during a recall or identify counterfeit goods so that they can be removed from stock. Barcodes and their unique numbers have also become important to retailers’ e-commerce business by ensuring product listings can be found by online shoppers while providing a seamless purchase experience for consumers.

GS1 US continues to facilitate important industry collaboration with brands and retailers to explore future barcode uses with a focus on empowering consumers with detailed product information — both in store and online. For example, web-enabled barcodes will leverage a product’s unique digital identity, connecting the shopper to enhanced and trustworthy online product content ranging from ingredients and expiration dates to discount offers, shopper reviews and warranty information. Several pilot projects are currently underway to support this effort. Additionally, GS1 US is helping businesses leverage these same GS1 Standards to advance emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and voice recognition that offer consumers more personalized, interactive product experiences.

“The last 45 years have taught us that barcodes and their unique identification numbers will always be foundational to commerce, particularly as shoppers continue to demand not only more product information to inform their purchase decision, but also fast delivery. GS1 US is addressing the growing needs of consumers to help them find, track and purchase products with convenience by evolving our standards. We’re carrying on the same pioneering spirit from 1974 into the digital era, and the opportunities are endless,” Carpenter said.

For more information, visit www.gs1us.org/45thanniversary.

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