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How the barcode is continuing to impact the retail world

In our daily lives we hardly give the barcode a second thought. We only really come across it when we’re shopping and even then, it’s merely a ‘bunch of lines and spaces’ that helps us process the transaction and buy an item.

But the barcode is so much more than that. The barcode powers everything from shopping to dining out, to healthcare and even logistics. It is estimated that it is used on more than a trillion possible products worldwide and this number will only increase as more products and services are being created.

While this might sound like an over exaggeration, it is not. The barcode, from its humble beginnings, has become one of the most essential tools of modern life. The famous song lyric tells us that, “money makes the world go round,” but in our current, always-on and connected world, it is in fact the barcode.

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The barcode was invented in 1952 by Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver and was inspired by Morse code. Its first use was on American railroads in the 1960s and involved placing colored stripes in various combinations on steel plates fixed to the sides of railroad stock. It wasn’t until an additional decade of adaptation that the barcode was trialed in a Kroger US grocery store, opening the door for the barcode’s inclusion in everyday life.

Since then, the barcode has taken over retail and transformed how we shop. It still does the job it did back then, being affixed to products and making it easy for cashiers to process items for customers. Today, it is even more efficient. Cashiers can still use multi-plane, fixed grocery scanners to read barcodes, and store clerks can also be more mobile and offer scanning facilities throughout the store with handheld scanning devices.

Lakeland, a specialist British retailer in home cooking, baking, cleaning and laundry products, has deployed Android touch computers in its 67 stores to boost productivity and enhance customer service.

With access to extensive product information covering all stores’ inventory, stock history and warehouse purchase order dates, store associates can pinpoint product information for customer enquiries. Benefits include a quicker, more streamlined and efficient operational process that enhances shopper engagement and increases sales.

New barcodes, produced by US company Digimarc, cover the entire packaging of the product, making the struggle to scan an item a thing of the past. The company has already implemented its innovative new scanning technology in two American stores. Developing this further, Digimarc scannable packaging will save time during checkout.

However, it doesn’t stop there. Retail establishments of all sorts are now working on even more innovative ways to make shopping more efficient and effective for store assistants and more enjoyable for customers. In doing so, customers are now given the ability to use their own mobile devices or handheld scanners to peruse the store at their own leisure and “shop as they go.”

This personal shopping capability allows customers to scan barcodes independently and also tracks their in-store location, offering them discounts based on previous purchases, directing them to their favorite items and even alerting them of potential harmful allergy risks in certain items. In the future, barcodes could be completely removed from shelves and instead replaced by ‘scannable’ packaging.

From Store to Warehouse

The barcode is also having a profound impact on how food and other items are transported worldwide, beyond how the items are purchased in store.

Of course, the logistical journey starts in the warehouse. By using barcode-enabled technology such as handheld and wearable scanners, warehouse staff can pick, pack, locate, maneuver, store and ship items more efficiently and effectively. It’s not just about the hardware, though.

Software is crucial to make warehouse management more agile. What is needed is a solution that complements the hardware to ensure all collected data is actioned properly. But, just as the product leaves the warehouse, so too does a manufacturer’s influence. Field operatives on the road must still deliver the best service, and to do so they need tools that can give them visibility across field associates, customers, goods and assets.

Without this insight, any gains seen within an organization’s four walls are immediately lost. Therefore, on the road proof of delivery, collection and fleet management are crucial to maintaining these high standards.

As for the future, the barcode is here to stay. Its journey is not even a decade old and we have seen such innovative and life-saving developments that its value will only increase, being critical to the success of global industries and re-writing the future in lines, small squares, radio frequencies and much more.


Steve Mulroy, EMEA data capture expert at Zebra Technologies

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