Business & Economy

Black on white: The amazing life of the simple barcode

Their black vertical lines on a white backdrop are everywhere. Zebralike, they greet shoppers at the toy store, are stuck to bananas at the grocers and Amazon could never deliver so many things without them. Barcodes make life easier and no one really notices them until the cashier can’t scan one and has to — reluctantly — manually type in the product number.

“For all the talk of technological breakthroughs today, arguably the quiet triumph of 20th century technology for the retail sector has been the barcode. Retailing might be simple, but it isn’t easy,” Jonathan Reynolds, academic director of the Oxford Institute of Retail Management at Oxford University, told DW. The barcode is a “compact, elegant and flexible solution,” he added.

The barcode is so universal it’s hard to believe someone actually had to invent it. But someone did. At the request of the grocery industry, and tweaking the earlier work of others, American engineer George Laurer headed a team that created the “universal product code,” or UPC, and the necessary scanning equipment. It was first used to buy a package of gum at a supermarket in Ohio in 1974.

Barcodes have evolved over the years. Some are long, some are short. Most have numbers attached to them, others don’t — like these packages of sugar in a Berlin supermarket

The grocery industry, which sells baskets full of cheaper goods, had a real incentive to make the checkout process easier, faster and more accurate. According to sources at the time, barcodes made checkout lines 40% quicker while also eliminating the need to put individual price tags on each item — or change them when prices went up or down. They also stopped customers from swapping price stickers on products. With more advanced software, it was soon possible to see what was selling well and have up-to-the-minute inventories.

A hard sell at first

Despite all the promised advantages, the uptake of barcodes was slow. Retailers were reluctant to invest in the necessary scanners. They didn’t want to sink cash into technology that would possibly not last long.

Additionally, many shoppers were leery that their purchases could be tracked, or worse they would be cheated because the price was no longer printed on each item. Conspiracy theories followed. With today’s constant surveillance this seems like a quaint idea, but at the time barcodes were a tough sale.

Grocery shops still use barcodes to manage inventory and speed up the checkout as they were originally intended. But they also use them for customer loyalty cards and on receipts. Nonetheless, barcodes have branched out and can today be found across the world

Yet slowly they started to take over the globe in the 1980s. And despite the fact that they now cover things from northern China to southern Chile and are scanned billions of times each day, Laurer never saw a cent. The company left the barcode in the public domain in order to sell its scanning equipment.

“IBM made no attempt to patent or otherwise protect the symbol and code because we wanted nothing to deter the use, or slow the implementation, of the UPC symbol. We gave it to the industry,” wrote Laurer in his autobiography “Engineering WAS Fun!”

For IBM it was a coup. For Laurer it was his most enduring invention in a 36-year career at the company. The inventor died in early December at the age of 94.

Creating order

The birth of the barcode was not easy. “IBM did not have an optical barcode or equipment to read optical barcodes on the market at that time. We had no proprietary equipment to sell or protect or make fit the requirements. These facts gave me a chance to start from scratch,” wrote Laurer. Up to that point the two proposals that could be scanned in any direction were “circular codes which were impractical to print to the required tolerances.” Laurer had to come up with something different.

In its simplest form his barcode is a one-dimensional set of 30 black vertical lines and 29 white spaces of varying thickness — in all 59 black and white bars. The lines represent numbers, which were printed underneath. Each pattern contains 95 bit of binary code and are matched to information in a database.  

The simplest barcodes are divided into sections for a manufacturer’s code and one for the individual product code. The numbers correspond to the black lines, which vary by thickness and spacing

The original barcode slowly left the grocery store and was adopted by many different industries. It also morphed into many different sizes.

“The barcode is the world’s most familiar business standard. We use it regularly as consumers scanning items at supermarket checkouts. But the barcode is far more than this,” Alistair Milne, professor of financial economics at Loughborough University, told DW.

From simple to matrix

Though the first generation one-dimensional barcode has changed over the years, the basics have remained the same — to trace inventory, live or inanimate — from wristbands for newborns and blood samples in hospitals to the package you were not home to sign for.

“Since its first commercial point of sale application, the barcode and related standards have become indispensible tools for the management of global supply chains, providing previously unimagined transparency about the location and progress of goods and materials,” said Milne.

More recent developments, like the more complex two-dimensional matrix codes, have broader uses. They also look different and integrate rectangles, dots, colors and geometric patterns and are backed up with much more information.

Advanced barcodes, like this 2D “Aztec” code can be read by smartphones and even used for cashless payments

The newest barcode incarnations are used for boarding passes, online banking and are a way for businesses to share information directly with customers through their mobile phones. They also allow people to rent bikes or unlock the doors of a rental car with a quick scan.

Scanning into the future

The barcode’s global success shows the great responsibility that can come with an omnipresent technology. “A key to raising and maintaining living standards is taking full advantage of digital technology and standardization,” Milne told DW. “Businesses though often resist standardization … The UPC barcode and its successors illustrate how large an impact is possible.”

At the same time policymakers need to understand the importance of universal standards and societies must promote real innovation.

“It is surely no accident that in Germany, where engineering excellence continues to earn great esteem and respect within the business world, that per capita income is 20% higher than in the UK, where engineering is too often regarded as a secondary and routine supporting aspect of business,” said Milne.  

For IBM and George Laurer one of the most important lessons was a different one. Customers would forgive a human clerk for typing in the wrong sum. Technological solutions on the other hand are held to a higher standard. “People just do not forgive machines for making errors,” concluded Laurer in his autobiography.

Modern life would, of course, be possible without barcodes; it just wouldn’t be as modern, organized or as fast. There would be no on-time package delivery and customers would spend a lot more time in the checkout line.

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Know your different types of supermarkets

    The different categories of grocery stores in Germany can be confusing for newcomers. A few chains are actual supermarkets, while a growing number of stores are rather categorized as discounters. The “bio” markets sell exclusively organic food. If you’re planning on cooking a Middle Eastern recipe, Turkish markets are your best bet; Asian markets provide everything you need for Oriental cuisine.

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Trade variety for price at ‘discounters’

    While typical supermarkets offer a wider selection of products, discount chains concentrate their offer on fewer brands and merchandise, which can make it frustrating when you’re searching for something specific. Still, the no-frills, cut-price approach has made German discount chain giants Lidl and Aldi so popular that they now have stores throughout Europe and the world.

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Bring a coin to unlock your shopping cart

    Many expats are amused to discover that shopping carts in Germany are shackled to each other. The €1-coin you need to unlock a trolley probably wouldn’t stop anyone from stealing it, but that’s not the point. Rather, the euro motivates people to return the cart to its designated spot after being used. The coin — or any token of the same size — is released once the cart is locked back up again.

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Amaze your friends abroad with cheap prices

    The low price of a pudding (currently €0.25 / $0.30) at a discounter store created a diplomatic uproar when an Israeli anonymously posted his grocery receipt on the now-defunct Facebook page Olim L’Berlin (literally, “Let’s ascend to Berlin”), as evidence that the cost of living in the German capital was unbeatable. Israeli politicians were enraged that people would “abandon Israel for a pudding.”

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Don’t look for eggs in the refrigerator

    Any North American would look for eggs among the chilled products in a grocery store, but they’re kept on normal shelves in Germany. Why? Eggs in the US are sanitized to prevent salmonella before being sent to the stores. However, the process destroys the egg’s outer protective layer, so they need to be kept in the fridge. In the EU, it’s illegal to wash the eggs; chickens are vaccinated instead.

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Plan your Sunday meals ahead

    Most stores are closed on Sundays, so fill up the fridge a day ahead. Laws regulate opening hours to allow workers to have a weekly “Ruhetag,” or resting day, a concept that’s still strong in Germany. There will always be smaller convenience stores open if you’re desperate for a bite or drink. And stores are exceptionally open on a certain number of Sundays, known as “verkaufsoffener Sonntage.”

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Shop for the apocalypse before a long weekend

    For holidays like Easter and Christmas, families often celebrate with festive meals. But supermarkets are closed an extra day on top of the Sunday. Grocery shopping just before they close feels like the entire country is preparing for an upcoming nuclear blast. If you happen to only need, say, bread or chocolate on such a day, avoid supermarkets and go to a bakery or convenience store instead.

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Expect chaos if an extra checkout lane opens

    The stereotypical German sense of order is quickly abandoned whenever a new lane is about to open. Instead of letting those who’d be next in line in the already existing queue go first, it’s often a free-for-all run to the next lane to save a few minutes of waiting. The unspoken rule to justify the shoving appears to be: “I was smart enough to guess that the lane would open, so I get to be first.”

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Know the importance of checkout dividers

    The little bar placed between two clients’ items seems extremely important in Germany. You could start putting your groceries onto the conveyor belt without setting your checkout divider, thinking this simple task can be taken care of later, since your items are still meters away from the till. But some elderly person is bound to remind you that this priority just can’t be neglected.

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Notice the cashiers get to sit down

    These are cultural differences that one might quickly forget if you’ve been living in Europe for a long time, but in most North American supermarkets, cashiers are required to stand while doing their work. The fact that cashiers are sitting in Germany doesn’t stop them from being extremely effective…

  • 11 useful tips on German supermarkets

    Be ready to pack quickly

    It has become a running gag among expats’ complaints: The space to pack groceries in Germany is usually very small and, especially at discounters, the checkout is super fast, so people find packing very stressful here. Remember the importance of the checkout divider? Once the items have been scanned, the strict separation of the next person’s groceries no longer matters. Just get out of the way!

    Author: Elizabeth Grenier


Article source: https://www.dw.com/en/black-on-white-the-amazing-life-of-the-simple-barcode/a-52292116?maca=en-rss-en-bus-2091-xml-atom

Related posts

Stocks climb on trade optimism; Treasuries fall

Times of News

VW Dieselgate bill rising on costlier US recall

Times of News

US ends laptop ban on Middle East carriers

Times of News
%d bloggers like this: