Chewing gum and the history of barcodes

I love barcodes. There’s something science-fiction about them – maybe helped by the fact they launched in the 70s just as the sci-fi movie genre was gathering momentum. But they’re just numbers. It’s what you do with the numbers that makes them amazing.

The first product ever to carry a barcode and to be scanned was quintessentially American – a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. (Concidentally, my chewing gum of choice when I was growing up). The bar code was scanned at 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974 at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

Barcodes are now everywhere and on everything. They are an efficient way of creating a machine-readable format that a scanner can quickly and accurately read, usually to create a list of purchases within a retail POS (point of sale) system.

Take the following barcode (produced twice using two different barcode fonts in both EAN13 and UPC-A formats – more on the difference later).

To a human, there are lots of lines of varying widths. To a barcode scanner (or even a barcode scanning app on your phone) you’ll get the numeric string (0)031415926531. Both these barcodes will return the same numeric string, regardless of whether a leading zero exists. The barcode scanner also ignores the numbers printed underneath entirely – they are only there for a manual backup for a checkout operator to type in if the scanner isn’t working. This string could then be associated with a box of Pi(es), so the correct amount can be centrally controlled and the correct price can be charged to the customer.

With twelve characters you could theoretically* get 99 billion products; and with 13 characters this increases to 999 billion. There’s roughly 7.3 billion people on Earth – even with our propensity to consume that’s a lot of unique codes. To give this some perspective: As at 2015, Amazon sold almost 500 million products in the USA – so a Y2K like rollover issue is still some time away. (And newer QR codes are already capable of storing huge amounts of data).

There’s nothing to stop a company producing their own barcodes for use within their own contained systems – Coles could have one barcode system, Woolworths another and Aldi a third. But what happens if the same supplier wants to sell products at all three stores?

Universal barcode standards

Enter the UPC (Universal Product Code) and/or the EAN (International Article Number, formerly the European Article Number). Kinda like Betamax and VHS there is more than one “universal” standard. Although, strictly speaking, the UPC is now a subset of EAN. The UPC and EAN are managed by GS1: “a global, neutral, non-profit standards organisation that brings efficiency and transparency to the supply chain”. The GS1 web site includes a lot more reference material if you’d like to know more.

The UPC or EAN is a unique code assigned to each product. Each variation of the same product (e.g. a 375ml Coke can, a 6 pack of 375 ml Coke cans, a 30 pack of 375 ml Coke cans) would all have different barcodes to allow different products to be managed by a supermarket’s warehousing software and for a different price to be charged for each product to the consumer.

This is where the magic starts to happen. Thanks to product databases and the ability for information to be shared between them, the same can of Coke can be referenced along the supply chain and used for stock control, ordering, shipping and point-of-sale purposes. There are even third party product providers that supply aggregate barcode information so a store doesn’t have to start from scratch and enter its own 375ml Coke variations.

Searching barcode information

What’s really interesting is that you can use a number of search engines and websites to see who registered the barcode and the product details.

Google search

A search for a standard 12 or 13 digit barcode will typically return hundreds of records from multiple vendors. And if the product is one that suits on-line shopping and delivery by post then it will also show a lot of online shops happy to sell you the product.

GTIN search

The GS1 provides a detailed search function via its Search by GTIN page including registration and ownership details.

Barcodes can include price/weight information

By now you’re probably thinking “How on earth to they add a barcode when I buy fresh chicken? Surely they don’t have a separate barcode for each chicken weight in 1 gram lots……”. I’m glad you asked!

This product has what looks like a standard 13-digit barcode, but when you search the GS1 database the following is returned:

By design, the UPC/EAN standard provides for a series of barcodes that can communicate product price or weight information.

In this specific example, the product price is communicated directly to the POS software and the price of $10.19 is recorded at the checkout. These barcodes are reserved for use within an organisation (i.e. Coles, Woolworths and Aldi would in all likelihood use different barcode numbers for their own pre-packaged chicken varieties).

Barcodes and catalogues

Many wholesale catalogues feature a product barcode to assist customers in ordering the products in question and to generally improve the information exchange been wholesaler and retailer.

Catalog Automation Pty Ltd can help you create information rich catalogues including product barcodes. If you’d like more information regarding the services Catalog Automation has to offer please call 1300 313 644 or email sales@catalogautomation.com.

*A UPC or EAN barcode actually contains both manufacturer and product information, as well as a check digit, so the actual number of unique barcodes available is much less. But it’s still a lot!



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