Happy Birthday UPC!

June 1, 2009

Some anniversarys are more important than others. And while the 35th anniversary of the Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code may not rank up there with your silver wedding anniversary, it's worth taking note.

On June 26, 1974, when a cashier at a Marsh Supermarkets store in Troy, OH scanned a package of Wrigley’s gum, it ushered in extraordinary economic and productivity gains for shoppers, retailers and manufacturers. 

One of the world’s best-known symbols, the UPC comprises a row of 59 machine-readable black and white bars and 12 human-readable digits. Both the bars and the digits convey the same information: the identity of a specific product and its manufacturer. 

Replacing individual price-labeling with the UPC resulted in faster, more accurate checkouts, saving consumers time and money.  Shelves were replenished more quickly, and stores were able to increase the frequency and variety of sales incentives.  It also simplified product returns and rebates, with estimated annual cost savings of $17 billion in the grocery sector alone, according to one study.

The UPC system enables retailers, manufacturers and suppliers to track inventories quickly and accurately, and plan accordingly.

“Industry would not be as efficient without the UPC," said Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, and chairman of the GS1 US Board of Governors.  “The UPC provides a basis for the industry to track products from production to shelf, to move products between companies, and to get products to shoppers quickly.”

In recent years, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been heralded as an improvement over UPC, but RFID remains expensive and marketers have been slow to adopt the technology. Just goes to show you, when you have something good—whether it's a marriage or a tracking system— there's no reason to replace it with a new model!

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