It’s 26 June, and it was on this day 39 years ago that an inconspicuous little pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum hit the spotlight, to become perhaps the most famous packet of chewing gum in modern history – it became the first barcoded product to be scanned in a supermarket, fundamentally changing the way we shop.
A testbed barcode system was installed in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio (near the factory producing the barcode scanning equipment), and at 8:01 on the morning of 26 June 1974, an unsuspecting shopper, Clyde Dawson, presented a packet of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum to the supermarket teller, Sharon Buchanan, who successfully scanned the product’s Universal Product Code (UPC). Sadly for Dawson, he never got to eat his chewing gum – the pack of gum, together with its receipt, is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute, representing the first commercial appearance of the UPC. (I can only assume he was well compensated for this special little item.)
The introduction of barcode scanning at the supermarket checkout introduced a number of benefits – it simplified the job of the teller, who no longer had to key in the price of each item, it reduced human input errors, and it captured a lot more sales information for the shop, thus allowing them to to achieve greater responsiveness to customer needs and buying trends. Barcodes on products have also significantly reduced the price tag swapping technique of shoplifting.
Shops in the US converted consistently over time, and by the early 80’s, 8000 stores per year were adopting the UPC. Adoption soon spread internationally, causing a fair amount of consternation among conspiracy theorists, who considered the barcode a visible and intrusive example of ‘big brother’ watching and monitoring their personal shopping habits.
From the retail sector the use of barcodes has spread to a wide range of application domains – healthcare centres and hospitals use it for patient identification and medication management. Postal services use it to track and trace mail. It is used as part of ticketing at events and transportation services. Barcodes have even appeared in art, for example Scott Blake’s Barcode Jesus.
It is certainly impossible to imagine modern life without the familiar little striped strip that appears on almost everything we deal with in our daily life, except perhaps for fresh produce. But times change, and slowly but surely so do the barcodes we see around us. These days more and more products are appearing carrying so-called Quick Response (QR) codes – probably the most popular 2D (or matrix) barcode – which can represent more data per unit area.
But that, as they say in the classics, is a story for another day…