Finding the right barcode

My most memorable moment in trying to figure out which barcode belonged to which item was when I asked a supermarket employee for assistance. He said that I, not he so as to assist me, must compare the barcodes – the one on the product to those shown slotted into the shelf. I was stunned! Have you ever tried reading a barcode on the very bottom shelf? Did he expect me to get down on my knees or even, flat on my stomach, to see it? If I was 30 years younger I just might have done either, or both. 

Barcodes are a fact of life for every one of us these days and are in many ways very useful. They have now been around for almost 50 years starting with Wrigley’s Chewing Gum in 1966 and the first scanner being introduced by a store in Troy, Ohio in 1974. The first idea of an automotive checkout system was actually mooted in 1932 by Flint Wallace but his system was not considered to be practice

Research continued for the next 20 years until, in 1952, Woodland and Silver were able to patent a working method which allowed the standard identification of products. Interestingly bar codes were not a combination of lines as we know them today but rather a specific pattern format which could be used throughout a particular industry. This format was quickly adopted by industries but it took many years for it to be used by grocers and supermarkets.

While shopping in the local supermarket this past week it came back to me again how, from what I can see, bar coding has definitely been of greater advantage to the retailer than the consumer. Why is that you may be thinking? Surely the consumer has the great advantage of getting through the checkout much faster, for example. Agreed, but what other advantages are there for the consumer? Can’t think of any right this minute, so I shall tell you my thinking with regard to the advantages for the retailer.

  1. Previously, when a retailer purchased a product from the wholesaler at a higher price than the previous stock, it was illegal to mark up old stock to the new price. Although many retailers hid the old priced items behind the new, fortunately many of us learnt of tricks such as these and would dig to the back to find the perfectly good item at the old price. Now there is no price stamped on to the item so new ones are simply added into what is on the shelf. The bar code only needs to be changed if the product has been changed in any way. thus, same product = same bar code. Upstairs in some isolated office, someone simply codes in the new price and all that stock, old and new, is sold at the new price.  Nice little profit there.
  2. Finding a price is frequently a daunting and frustrating task. The only place a price is to be found is on the shelf itself. The problem is the consumer has to now work out to which item a price belongs. I am certain that every person reading this has, at some time or other, been really irritated at not being able to work out which price coding belongs to which item. Is it the price tag above or below the items; which of the half dozen in the particular ‘slot’ refers to the product they wish to purchase.
  3. The third advantage for the retailer is that, use of bar coding can mean a reduction in staff thus saving overhead costs. Instead of needing staff to individually price items before shelving, the bar code is simply entered into their system and the products are put directly on to the shelves all at the new price. In fact, most retailers now require the supplier to stack the shelves reducing their costs even further.

Regrettably, I can see now way out of this unfair practice with bar codes as they are now part of our daily lives.  Maybe someone from the retail industry will read this and think of a way to make the use of barcodes of greater financial and convenient value to the customer as well.



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