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Scanning the Supermarket Barcode, from Punch Cards to Vanity Branding A History of the Supermarket Barcode Scanning the Supermarket Barcode, from Punch Cards to Vanity Branding A History of the Supermarket Barcode
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Scanning the Supermarket Barcode, from Punch Cards to Vanity Branding A History of the Supermarket Barcode

by Peter Smith

July 7, 2011

Thirty-seven years ago today, a strange new computer technology entered the supermarket. On June 26, 1974, a white male by the name of Clyde Dawson entered Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. He loaded up his cart with groceries and approached the checkout line. The cashier that day was Sharon Buchanan. At 8:01 a.m., she picked a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum out of his cart and scanned it.

The gum has now been immortalized at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. That first scan signified a radical transformation of the supermarket, ushering in the era of the Universal Product Code (U.P.C.)—the nondescript, monochrome rectangle that adorns nearly every retail item we purchase. Today, it’s become a standard for consumer products in the electronic age.

It all started in Southern California, where grocery stores evolved into single-story supermarkets with names like McDaniel’s, Ralph’s Grocery Company, and Alpha Beta, according to Richard W. Longstreth’s The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941. Supermarkets were designed for one-stop shopping. Readily accessible by automobile? Check. Stocked with more products than ever before? Check. Low prices? Check. Personal attention? Unlikely. A systematic method for keeping track of their stocks? Not so much.

Soon, supermarkets began looking for ways to better manage an ever-increasing inventory. In 1932, a Harvard business student named Wallace Flint conceived of a punch-card system, much like the one developed for the 1890 U.S. Census, but the cards were easily damaged and the devices for reading them unwieldy. Then, in 1948, Bernie Silver, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, began working with Joe Woodland on the idea of making the Morse Code visible. Woodland later took a job at IBM. His patent for the primitive bar code was eventually sold to Philco/RCA.

By the mid-1970s, supermarket inventories had grown to an average of 10,000 items, according to Andrew Smith's Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the History of American Cuisine. So the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Association of Food Chains set up a committee to standardize a system for identifying food items. Although the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council's work has been referred to as the grocery industry's “Manhattan Project,” the process was relatively open to the public. It was also a little bit dirty. In a recent obituary for Alan Haberman, who headed the Symbol Selection Subcommittee, The New York Times writes:

Mr. Haberman’s committee comprised more than half a dozen type-A businessmen, and discussion could be fractious. At one meeting, in San Francisco in the early 1970s … Mr. Haberman found a spectacularly good way to smooth dissent. First he organized a dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants. Then he took everyone to a local movie theater to see “Deep Throat.”

The remainder of the committee's work was more mundane: According to Errol Morris’s promotional film for IBM, "They Were There," the committee considered a bulls-eye circle, a half circle, a stylized alpha-numeric system, and a starburst to represent the barcode's standard shape.

In the end, though, committee members chose a slightly modified linear barcode from IBM’s George J. Laurer (they changed the font at the bottom). Laurer's model won out because it was easy to read with the available scanning and printing technology and it used less ink.

Over the years, the barcode has been interpreted variously as a social surveillance tool, a sign of the devil, and an embodiment of the dull commercial uniformity of packaged supermarket goods. While radio frequency identification (RFID) could replace the printed bars, the relatively low cost of printing means the barcode has held its own.

"I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon," Yael Miller, the co-owner of Vanity Barcodes LLC, told me. "It’s a very efficient system. The person who invented them is a genius and the fact that it’s still around today is proof." Still, she and others have been rethinking the ubiquitous icon of depersonalization with customized bar codes—a new form of creative branding. “If you can do subtle things on your package," Miller says, "that can be much more powerful than screaming, ‘Hey look at me!’”

It's remarkable how this inexpensive technology, initially developed as a temporary solution for the modern supermarket's need for efficiency, has left such an indelible mark on the way we shop. It’s made superstores such as Walmart possible and transformed the speed at which we buy food. In the process, it may have also hastened the demise of public markets and independent grocery stores.

As we look to the future of these codes—and further explore the possibilities of altering them with custom branding and unlocking them with our phones—there’s still a possibility that the information hidden in those 95 bits could translate into greater knowledge for consumers and a healthier world.

Top image via "Method and Devise for Reading and Decoding a High Density Self-Clocking Bar Code," 1973. Second image via "Machine for Tabulating Statistics," 1894.  Third image via "Classifying Apparatus and Method," 1952.  Fourth image via (PDF) "Scanner, Inc. Standard for Printing Specifications for the Scanner UPC Symbol"/ID History Museum. Fifth image via (PDF)"Addendum to Proposed U.P.C. Symbol Specifications Revision No. 1 October, 1972"/ID History Museum. Bottom image ©Vanity Barcodes LLC.

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Scanning the Supermarket Barcode, from Punch Cards to Vanity Branding A History of the Supermarket Barcode