35 years ago they said it would never take off…

26 Nov 14

Barcode scanning in UK supermarkets is 35 years old. It’s a function that is taken for granted now but, as with all new technologies, there were major doubts back then as to whether it would achieve widespread usage among industry.

Consumer goods manufacturers were sceptical that scanning would ever take off – and were reluctant to blemish their labels with ugly stripes.

There was debate over whether scanning is better than key-entered codes, use of magnetic stripes or optical character recognition. Concerns were raised over what would happen in the event of a power cut, whether they would work on imported goods – even over whether there were any health and safety implications.

Yet retail scanning can be counted amongst the major business successes of the past century. It is not just that they are so pervasive in sectors such as grocery retail – there are serious cost savings associated with their use. Today it is estimated that the retail industry saves £10.9bn annually through use of barcodes for products.

So where did it all begin? The first store to scan in the UK was Keymarkets in Spalding, Lincolnshire, where the button was pressed on 2 October 1979.

At that time there were just 22 grocery items with barcodes printed at source by their manufacturers. This meant that Keymarkets had to undertake a complicated and expensive process to apply adhesive labels to their products.

Fast-forward 35 years and the utilisation of barcodes has reached a remarkable level, with an estimated 5 billion scans of barcodes taking place every day. And their usage is not just limited to retail either – the Department of Health mandated GS1 standards for NHS trusts in May this year, and they are widely implemented in the foodservice industry.

What is the future for barcodes?

The barcode is a data-carrier technology – and as such offers one option for the communication of shared data.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) offers one alternative for example. Around a decade ago it was being hailed as the next big thing in supply chain operations, but take-up has been slower than anticipated. RFID offers many benefits – it uses radio waves, meaning multiple product tags can be read almost simultaneously without the tags needing to be in the reader’s line of sight. They can also be rewritten or added to over time, unlike a barcode, and they can be connected to sensors that enable them to respond to environmental conditions such as temperature or shock.

The prohibiting factor was generally considered to be the additional cost of applying tags to products, but RFID is now being adopted globally among apparel retailers.

There are also newer ‘2D’ carriers, such as QR codes. These technologies are capable of carrying more data than the linear barcodes. In 2013 the Consumer Goods Forum and GS1 launched a project called ‘Next Generation Product Identification’ (NGPI) to look at how additional information, such as expiry date and serial number, could supplement existing identifiers. As the trend is toward consumers continually expecting to have access to more in-depth information, the potential for these technologies is clear.

The reality however is that the standard barcode provides a convenient and inexpensive option for carrying identification numbers – and until the systems are in place to support the newer technologies on a wide scale, they will continue to be used in tandem for years to come.

Whether this period will be another 35 years, only time will tell.