A Quick History of Using Barcodes in Retail
Barcodes were a revolutionary invention in the retail industry, allowing businesses to quickly and efficiently track inventory, conduct checkouts, and improve accuracy. A quick history of using barcodes in retail shows how this technology became the standard in retail operations.
First developed over 70 years ago and first used commercially in the 1970s, retailers have embraced barcodes as an indispensable tool.
Brad Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland in 1948
Two Drexel University students, Brad Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, developed the first grocery product identification system, which they patented in 1952. It was a bull’s-eye-shaped code that ultimately proved too complex for existing technology to use efficiently.
Barcodes on Trains
Despite this setback, the concept of barcodes continued to gain momentum. In the 1960s, inventor David J. Collins developed a system called KarTrak at Sylvania Electric Products. It identified train cars with a series of stripes to track them more accurately and efficiently. His system was ultimately discontinued in 1978 due to technological limitations. One issue was that the “reader” for the system used a 500-watt light bulb and was the size of a refrigerator.
The Advent of Lasers and the Linear Barcode
Frustrated with the lack of development of barcode technology beyond the KarTrak system, Collins formed his own company called Computer Identics Corporation. There, he developed the first use of lasers to read barcodes. General Motors began using the technology to track car axle manufacturing.
It was not until 1969 that IBM, with Norman Woodland’s help, developed the first linear barcode to be read by a laser scanner. IBM became the first commercial supplier of linear barcode technology in 1973. This system is still used today and is known as the Universal Product Code (UPC).
The first commercial use of the barcode took place in a Marsh’s grocery store in Troy, Ohio, in 1974. Supermarket clerk Sharon Buchanan scanned a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum, and the modern age of barcodes in grocery stores was born.
In 1983, retail giant Walmart began using UPC codes to keep track of inventory and sales data.
Today, virtually every retail store across the globe uses barcodes. Beyond retail, libraries also use barcodes for tracking books and publications, while theaters use them on tickets. Barcodes are even used in doctor’s offices to identify patient records and medical histories.
Retailers and online sellers can buy barcodes registered with GS1, the global standards organization that issues global trade item numbers or GTINs. These ensure that every registered item has a unique number that will prevent confusion between similar items in global markets.
The Versatility of the Barcode
This quick history of using barcodes in retail shows that the modern barcode has come a long way since its invention. However, it remains one of the most essential tools in retail. Its versatility and reliability make it an indispensable tool for any business that needs to track inventory, sales data, and customer information quickly and accurately.
Barcodes continue to exist alongside the newer RFID technology that doesn’t require optical scanning and can detect shoplifting and locate lost items. The two systems complement each other in making retail operations more efficient and profitable.