Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the first barcode being scanned at a till in a UK shop. Today they are universally used, but what’s next?

Why are we talking about barcodes now?

A US invention, in October 1979 the first barcode in the UK was scanned at a till at neighbourhood shop Key Markets in Spalding, Lincolnshire.

Who invented the barcode?

The barcode was invented by Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland from Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Technology. The original patent was filed in 1949 and granted in October 1952.

Alongside the barcodes we now know, a circular or bull’s-eye format was also considered. Barcodes were not used commercially until retailers in the National Association of Food Chains agreed on the familiar Universal Product Code (UPC) designs.

The first supermarket scanner to read the UPC barcodes was a store in Ohio in 1974. The first product to have a barcode printed on it was a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum.

What are they?

Shop barcodes usually represent numbers and are allocated by GS1 standards and assigned to items by users. Each one is a unique product.

Were there any problems in the introduction of barcodes?

According to GS1, there was initially some scepticism because campaign groups feared the removal of price stickers meant people would be overcharged. The red lasers of the scanners also led to safety fears.

A further problem was the slowness of manufacturers to put barcodes on their products. In the early days, few products carried barcodes administered by the manufacturer and retailers had to put on sticky labels with barcodes on.

Eventually, suppliers were persuaded to put the barcodes on at source and this is when their use took off - by 1982, 70% of UK grocery goods had barcodes.
What difference did they make?

Barcodes enabled store staff to process products more quickly, instead of the cumbersome punching in of prices on a till.
Barcodes also help collate information for databases. Each transaction can be linked to the supply chain, ensuring that stores do not run out of products.

What are the latest developments in barcodes?

GS1 has been working on the introduction of a new type of barcode, DataBar. It is about half the size of a traditional barcode. DataBar was due to become an open global standard next year but GS1 has delayed it until 2014 to give retailers more time to adopt appropriate technology. DataBar will carry more information than existing barcodes, including information on batch or serial numbers, expiry dates and price.