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Thirty-Fifth Anniversary of the Bar Code

June 2009
ORLANDO, Fla.—The 35th anniversary of the Universal Product Code (U.P.C.) bar code was celebrated recently by GS1 US, the developer and administrator of the U.P.C. for more than 200,000 businesses in the United States. The organization marked the event with a giant U.P.C.-adorned birthday cake for more than 800 attendees at its annual U Connect Conference in Orlando.

One of the world’s best-known symbols, the U.P.C. comprises a row of 59 machine-readable black and white bars and 12 human-readable digits. Both the bars and the digits convey the same information: the identity of a specific product and its manufacturer.

Originally developed to help supermarkets speed up the checkout process, the first live use of a U.P.C. took place in a Marsh Supermarkets store in Troy, Ohio, on June 26, 1974, when a cashier scanned a package of Wrigley’s gum. It ushered in extraordinary economic and productivity gains for shoppers, retailers and manufacturers alike, with estimated annual cost savings of $17 billion in the grocery sector alone, according to one study.

Replacing individual price-labeling with the U.P.C. resulted in faster, more accurate checkouts, saving consumers time and money. Shelves were replenished more quickly and stores were able to increase the frequency and variety of sales incentives. It also simplified product returns and rebates.

The U.P.C. was quickly adopted by other industries, which sought to capture the benefits it had delivered to the grocery industry. Today U.P.C.s are scanned more than 10 billion times a day in applications spanning more than 25 industries, including consumer packaged goods, apparel, hardware, food services, healthcare, logistics, government, and high-tech.

“The U.P.C. made the modern retail store possible,” said Rodney McMullen, vice chairman of The Kroger Co., which operates more than 4,000 stores in different formats and under different banners, or names. “It allows us to carry tens of thousands of items in a given store and move shoppers through quickly, while offering them many different ways to save money.”

Integral to the U.P.C.’s success are its flexibility—usable on myriad surfaces—and the foresight of the people who decided to design it with the capacity to identify millions of unique items. Although the range of its use today was not envisioned in 1974, when supermarkets carried a fraction of the inventory they carry today, the U.P.C. nevertheless accommodates the creation each year of tens of thousands of new products.
 

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