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
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
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
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.