There are secrets that lie behind the bar code’s perpendicular black and white lines. Technological advances are changing the familiar stripes’ use from simply speeding customer checkout to tracking products through the entire distribution chain; managing store inventory, shelving and pricing; and helping shoppers become more knowledgeable.
“What’s important is the information [a bar code] holds,” says Steve Arens, director of industry development for GS1 US, a Lawrenceville, N.J.-based company that develops and administers bar codes.
The basic Universal Product Code now used globally is simply data in a machine-readable form. It’s something like Morse code with lines instead of the dot-and-dash pattern. Bar codes today also can include squares, dots, hexagons and other geometric images.
Bar codes are scanned more than 10 billion times a day in more than 25 industries, according to GS1. Look for that to grow exponentially as their functionality increases.
Phoning it in
Cell phones are on the forefront of bar-code development. Newer phones have applications that allow consumers to scan bar codes to check prices, find online coupons for the product or be alerted to a sale on that product. Customers can go online to upload coupon codes, which checkout clerks can scan right from the phone’s screen. Developing technology is poised to go even further with phone and in-store applications that will scan a bar code and link to the producer or manufacturer’s website, display product ingredients and even provide recipes.
One application in development will allow shoppers to set preferences for the specific information they want to see when scanning a bar code with their phone, Arens says. The application is customizable to alert the consumer to allergens, such as peanuts, in the product’s ingredients.
“It’s set up as a stop-light system,” Arens says. “A green light indicates that the product does not contain ingredients the consumer has identified,” and a red light warns the shopper to stop and read the ingredients.
More in store
A cell phone isn’t the only way to access bar codes’ increasingly rich information. “There is a product being tested now where you can hold the bar code up to a scanner at a kiosk in the store and see the field where the produce was grown,” says Susan Stewart, organic certification and sustainability coordinator for The Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis. “How cool is that?”
Pasadena, Calif.-based SIRA Technologies and University of Rhode Island researchers have created a temperature-sensitive bar-code ink that can track refrigerated product temperature and shelf life to alert retailers and consumers to spoilage of a packaged product, such as meat or milk. If the ink turns red in a store setting, the bar code won’t scan. If the ink turns red at home, the consumer knows the product is no longer safe.
“The opportunity is there to put so much information into the bar code. It’s going to be one of those things where people will be able to get much more information and have a huge choice about what products to buy,” Stewart says. “We can trace food from the fork all the way back to the farm and the field. People want to know where their food comes from.”
Safety in numbers
Outbreaks of E. coli and other contaminants in food, along with post-Sept. 11 concerns about food-based terrorism, have led to the development of a new system. Instead of just product and price information, the GS1 DataBar system can include manufacturer, distributor, expiration dates, lot numbers and more. That data is expected to make tracking contamination sources and other issues much faster and enable recalls to be narrower but more effective.
Conventional bananas, for example, are all coded 4011. With the current bar code and price look-up (PLU) number that’s printed as numerals below the bars, bananas are all the same. They’re just bananas. But with the DataBar, retailers will know immediately whether they sold Dole bananas or Chiquita. They’ll know the product’s origin, as well as when it was shipped and to what distributor, tracing the product through the entire supply chain, domestic or global.
The new traceability for produce is being watched closely by producers and distributors in other categories, including pork, chicken and milk. “It’s viewed as a model for other industries to enhance traceability,” Arens says. “It’s important to retain that information.”
Raising the bar
The main benefit of the DataBar for retailers and producers is that it’s enough to be used on individual pieces of produce, as well as bags of smaller items such as grapes or cherries.
The GS1 Databar is targeted to launch in January. The U.S. leaders in the process are Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Publix Super Markets and Kroger, according to Arens.
But “the industry recognizes that this will be evolutionary,” he says. “Small stores and independent stores may upgrade more slowly, so the PLU number will be on the codes probably forever.”
Bar codes were developed in rudimentary fashion in the 1940s and first used to label railroad cars but didn’t see commercial success until used to automate grocery checkout systems.
In 1970, the National Association of Food Chains established a committee to investigate using bar codes and set guidelines for standardization. They agreed to an 11-digit code to identify any product. The system was quickly adopted by retailers to replace the time-consuming and error- or fraud-prone individual price labels.
Janet Day is a business writer and editor in Fraser, Colo.