Use of Bar Codes Proliferates

The introduction of bar codes allowed for faster and more efficient transactions at retail stores. It also provided store owners with a reliable and economical method of tracking inventory. Moreover, the expansion of the use of bar codes allowed marketers to track customers’ shopping activities.

Summary of Event

Almost every single item for sale today has a two-part bar code printed on the product or its package. The unevenly distributed thirty bars with twenty-nine spaces, both of various widths, to be read by a scanner, is one element of the tracking device. The other consists of twelve easy-to-see numerals. The commercialization of bar-code technology was given impetus by the National Association of Food Chains, National Association of Food Chains which wanted a uniform system for food manufacturers and retailers that would expedite the checking out process. Universal Product Codes
Bar codes
Retailing;bar codes
[kw]Use of Bar Codes Proliferates (June 26, 1974-2000)
[kw]Bar Codes Proliferates, Use of (June 26, 1974-2000)
[kw]Codes Proliferates, Use of Bar (June 26, 1974-2000)
Universal Product Codes
Bar codes
Retailing;bar codes
[g]North America;June 26, 1974-2000: Use of Bar Codes Proliferates[01620]
[g]United States;June 26, 1974-2000: Use of Bar Codes Proliferates[01620]
[c]Trade and commerce;June 26, 1974-2000: Use of Bar Codes Proliferates[01620]
[c]Inventions;June 26, 1974-2000: Use of Bar Codes Proliferates[01620]
[c]Science and technology;June 26, 1974-2000: Use of Bar Codes Proliferates[01620]
Silver, Bernard
Woodland, Norman Joseph

RCA had purchased an earlier invention of graduate student Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, a teacher at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. A food chain executive in 1948 asked the school to consider a research project that would collect product data during the checkout process. The pair patented their invention on October 7, 1952 (U.S. Patent 2,612,994). It subsequently used a bull’s-eye configuration for its code, but store employees still had to put such labels on the products themselves. It generated lukewarm results during its trial run at a Kroger grocery store in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1967. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush recognized Woodland’s contribution to the industry by awarding him the National Medal of Technology for his invention. Silver had passed away at the age of thirty-eight in 1962.

In 1970, Logicon, Inc., following up on the food industry’s request for ideas, recommended the Universal Grocery Products Identification Code (UGPIC) for the food industry. An industrywide committee finally adopted the standardized Universal Product Code (UPC) symbol three years later. As of that adoption date, April 3, 1973, store owners had the technology and tools to conduct business differently and more efficiently.

The first application of today’s UPC scanner took place in Troy, Ohio, on June 26, 1974. Made by the National Cash Register Company (now the NCR Corporation), the unit was installed at a Marsh Supermarket, where the first product to be scanned at its checkout counter was a ten-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. Although it was the first item placed on the counter by simple chance, that chewing gum package was later put on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Around this same period, other industries realized the importance of bar codes. The railroad industry, for example, had trouble keeping track of its many railcars scattered around the country. On October 10, 1967, the industry started using a system of colorful optical bar codes with ten digits. The first four numbers represented the railroad company owning the car; the other six digits were specific to that car. It was not until 1974 that 95 percent of the train cars were labeled, but the computers used to read the bar codes were expensive and bulky. Interstate trucking took over much of the freight business from the railroads during the mid-1970’s. That situation, coupled with railroad bankruptcies, made the code system an expensive and unnecessary option.

In the early 1970’s, the British company Plessey Communications produced a bar-code scanner that libraries could use in checking books out to their patrons. Monarch Marking Systems, an American firm, created its Codabar system, used for such items as books and blood collections. Beginning on September 1, 1981, the U.S. Department of Defense implemented Logistics Applications of Automated Marking and Reading Symbols (LOGMARS), a bar-code system for all products it purchased. Industries soon decided to become regular users of UPCs, even if they did not sell goods or services to the military.

The introduction of the Universal Product Code (UPC), a kind of bar code, in the mid-1970’s allowed for faster, more efficient transactions at retail stores and provided a reliable method of tracking inventory.

(© Gingerichj)

All companies had to comply with the universal symbol by registering with the Uniform Code Council Uniform Code Council (UCC), a nonprofit corporation that also administers bar codes for coupons and medicines. No longer could companies continue to use their own set of numbers, letters, combinations, or no codes at all. Submitting an application with the council is the only way a manufacturer, supplier, or seller can obtain a UPC bar code. More than 200,000 companies had joined the UCC by the end of the twentieth century.

The twelve UPC numerals identify the following: The first digit is usually a zero, except for products that have different weights, such as produce and meat; the five following digits are the manufacturer’s identification number, and the next five represent the specific item number. A manufacturer employee would assign item numbers according to size or flavor of the same product. The final number is inserted as a check digit, to verify that the item is scanned properly. Most scanners were built to read product codes even if items were inserted upside down.


By the end of the twentieth century, bar-code scanners had become smaller, lighter, and easier to use. Many stores featured customer service areas where shoppers could slip a product’s UPC beneath a scanner unit to have its price displayed immediately. Bar codes could be affixed to two-by-four lumber, newspapers, and even hospital patients and marathon runners. Worldwide shipper Federal Express was cited as the largest single user of bar-code technology. Grocery and hardware stores, among others, inserted self-checkout lines where individuals could scan their own purchases, select a payment method, and leave the store without standing in long lines. Stores, in turn, were able to save on labor costs.

The European equivalent of the UPC system is the European Article Numbering European Article Numbering system (EAN) system. It added two extra digits and, with the growth of the European Union during the end of the twentieth century, became the most popular system. North American scanners were later required by the UCC to read all EAN items. Other code systems in use around the world included letters with their numbers.

As predicted during the early days of bar codes, the adoption of this technology created savings for retailers in a number of ways. Training to use the equipment was much easier than training to operate a traditional cash register, in which individual items had to be entered manually. Transactions were completed in less than half the time compared with transactions on registers without scanners. Stores could thus handle more customers at checkout without hiring additional employees. The accuracy rate for cashiers went from an average of one mistake per one hundred items using a cash register to one mistake per ten thousand items for an optical character reader, one in three million for a wand, and one in seventy million using laser technology.

Prior to bar-code technology, time-consuming inventories of stockrooms and store shelves by employees were the sole means of determining what was selling and how much had to be reordered. With the new methods, store managers and manufacturers could quickly and accurately keep track of merchandise. As a result of UPC technology, industries that used just-in-time inventory control could make sure that parts were delivered at the proper cycles during the manufacturing stage. With the widespread popularity of bar-coded shopper loyalty cards, marketers were able to track who purchased what products, when, how often, at what prices, and whether coupons were used. Universal Product Codes
Bar codes
Retailing;bar codes

Further Reading

  • Collins, David Jarrett, and Nancy Nasuti Whipple. Using Bar Code: Why It’s Taking Over. 2d ed. Duxbury, Mass.: Data Capture Press, 1994. Provides a look at the pervasiveness of the bar-code system. Illustrated.
  • Leibowitz, Ed. “Bar Codes: Reading Between the Lines.” Smithsonian, February, 1999, 130-146. Interesting article discusses the history and future of the bar code.
  • Morton, Alan Q. “Packaging History: The Emergence of the Uniform Product Code (UPC) in the United States, 1970-1975.” History and Technology 11 (1994): 101-111. Historical overview of the punch card system proposed in 1932. Provides rich details about the early UPC use, including the Wrigley Gum purchase.
  • Nelson, Benjamin. Punched Cards to Bar Codes. Petersborough, N.H.: Helmers, 1997. Provides an excellent history of bar codes and also describes many other different kinds of product codes.
  • Seideman, Tony. “Barcodes Sweep the World.” Wonders of Modern Technology (Spring, 1993). Details work by Woodland and Silver in bringing their idea to fruition. Concludes with 1970’s expansion of UPC use.

Retailers Control Inventory Shrinkage with Computer Technology

Price Club Introduces the Warehouse Club Concept