Happy 30th Anniversary, UPC!

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. and TROY, Ohio - The Uniform Code Council (UCC), the not-for-profit business standards organization, and Marsh Supermarkets celebrated the 30th anniversary of the UPC bar code this morning at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio -- the location that hosted the world's first live scan.

Representatives of Marsh Supermarkets, the UCC, and the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., as well as the original cashier who scanned the first UPC-labeled item, were among the guests on hand to recognize the bar code's enormous contributions. "The point of us going back there was to thank the people -- the actual staff -- who were on the front lines of this whole movement 30 years ago," said UCC spokesman Jeff Oddo. "Many of these staff members are still with the store."

The UPC was the outgrowth of meetings that took place in the late 1960s among leaders of the U.S. grocery industry who were searching for ways to reduce food costs and congestion at the checkout line. In 1974, after five years of development, the U.P.C. was introduced. Don Marsh, the chairman and c.e.o. of Indianapolis-based Marsh, agreed to make the company's Troy, Ohio store the site of the first UPC system.

"Marsh is a regional supermarket, and the size was conducive to run such an undertaking, and an aggressive test for [global technology company] NCR with the UPC bar code scan," Marsh spokeswoman Jodi Marsh told Progressive Grocer in an interview. "NCR is based in the Ohio area, and our first store in which we implemented [the system] was in Troy, Ohio."

This was no easy task, according to UCC's Oddo. "It wasn't just that you scan a pack of Wrigley gum and high-five one another," he said. "There was a lot of work involved, because none of the products were source-marked. It required the hand application of UPC stickers every day and every night."

It's estimated that the UPC has saved shoppers, retailers, and manufacturers over $1 trillion since its implementation, and it has become an essential part of everyday commerce and consumer life. "When they started installing the new equipment, we knew it was important, but we had no idea just how far this bar code would go," said Sharon Buchanan, the Marsh cashier who made the first UPC scan.

Originally developed to help supermarkets speed up the checkout process, the UPC is composed of a row of 59 black and white bars of varying length, which are read by the scanner. Printed beneath the bars is a series of 12 numbers, which together identify the manufacturer and the specific product.

The UPC's benefits extended far beyond the checkout lane, however. It eliminated the need for manual pricing, resulting in lower-priced products. Checkouts became faster and more accurate, saving consumers time and money. The UPC also allowed retailers and manufacturers to manage and replenish inventory more efficiently, as well as automate many processes and operations, such as special promotions, coupons, and product returns.

The expansion of the UPC has allowed the UCC to develop an entire family of bar codes that allow companies to uniquely identify products, but also cartons, cases, pallets, assets, and even coupons. The organization estimates that these bar codes are scanned over 10 billion times a day worldwide. The economic benefits of the UPC have been enormous: A 1999 PriceWaterhouseCoopers study estimated that the bar code saves more than $17 billion annually in the domestic retail industry alone -- probably much more in today's economy.

Today the UPC is used in 23 major industries, including grocery, retail, health care, government, foodservice, industrial/commercial, transportation, and high technology. In 1977 EAN International, the UCC's global partner, began commercializing a 13-digit companion bar code to the UPC called EAN-13. The worldwide success of both symbologies became the foundation for the EAN.UCC System of bar code and electronic commerce standards, which is used by over 1 million companies to facilitate efficient commerce in 141 nations. EAN International and the UCC have announced plans to rename their organizations GS1, with a planned rollout in 2005.

The UPC's success has allowed the UCC to introduce new standards initiatives to benefit consumers and industry. Reduced Space Symbology, a smaller "bar code cousin" to the UPC, is now being used to mark small health care items such as vials, blister packs, ampules, and syringes. Earlier this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that pharmaceutical companies bar code their medicines down to the unit of dose so that they can be scanned in hospitals, and endorsed Reduced Space Symbology as a means to cut down on medication errors.

The UCC is also in the process of working with industry to standardize and commercialize its newest innovation, the Electronic Product Code. This "wireless bar code" will use low-power radio frequency tags and readers to automatically capture information like bar coding, but with even greater benefits to consumers, according to UCC c.o.o. Michael Di Yeso. "We strongly believe that once manufacturers, distributors, and retailers begin to adopt and use this technology in their businesses, its impact will eclipse the benefits achieved by the UPC bar code," Di Yeso noted.

In recognition of the UPC's impact on global commerce, the original pack of Wrigley's gum and the actual checkout scanning unit from the Troy Marsh store are now at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

-- Joseph Tarnowski
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