Break out the champagne. This Sunday is National Barcode Day. According to one website, “National Barcode Day commemorates more than 40 years of efficiency and accuracy that began on June 26, 1974, when a clerk scanned a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, OH. On that day, the barcode system invented by George Lauer, an IBM engineer, began to change the world.” The truth of the matter is that the genesis of the barcode is found nearly two-dozen years earlier. According to Wikipedia, “The barcode was invented by Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver and patented in the US in 1951. The invention was based on Morse code that was extended to thin and thick bars. However, it took over twenty years before this invention became commercially successful.” Rather than the linear barcode familiar to us today, Woodland’s and Silver’s barcode was circular in shape. According to Wikipedia, the Uniform Grocery Product Code Council chose the barcode design developed by George Laurer because it “printed better than the circular barcode developed by Woodland and Silver.”
How Barcodes Work
Most of us understand that barcodes contain information that help retailers track inventory; however, few of us know much more about them. The staff at Wasp Barcode Technologies explains:
“Barcodes play a crucial role in the effective and efficient operation of our economy, from small businesses to large multinational conglomerates. A barcode is ‘A machine-readable code in the form of numbers and a pattern of parallel lines of varying widths, printed on and identifying a product.’ But in truth a barcode is so much more. Barcode systems help businesses and organizations track products, prices, and stock levels for centralized management in a computer software system allowing for incredible increases in productivity and efficiency. The lines and patterns on a barcode are actually representations of numbers and data and their development allowed basic information about a product to be easily read by an optical scanning device, a barcode scanner, and automatically entered into a computer system.”
The linear barcode, with which we are most familiar, is also known as a Universal Product Code (UPC) and is a one-dimensional (1D) code. The following video provides a quick lesson about how barcodes work.
Ian McCue (@imccue), a Senior Associate Content Manager at Oracle Netsuite, writes, “Barcodes have taken off because they offer a clear and fast return on investment.” He lists some of the key benefits businesses can take advantage of with barcodes. They are:
• Accuracy: “Barcodes eliminate manual entry of product information at receiving, meaning there are far fewer opportunities for error. Whether in a retail store or a warehouse, associates simply swipe the barcode across the scanner. Errors in barcodes themselves are extremely rare.”
• Real-time data: “Each time an employee scans a barcode, it immediately updates inventory and sales numbers in the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) or business management system. This gives a business constant access to up-to-date data, allowing it to quickly calculate meaningful metrics like inventory turn, value of inventory on-hand or sales per week by item.”
• Reduced training: “For the most part, barcodes and scanners are self-explanatory, so it doesn’t take new employees long to become efficient at the checkout counter. And, barcodes greatly reduce the need for memorization and institutional knowledge. At a grocery store, for example, the worker doesn’t have to know the codes for popular items to be productive.”
• Inventory control: “Barcodes improve inventory management and reduce excessive spending on products. Employees can always find the most current information when reviewing inventory positions or trends in demand, which facilitates better decisions around purchasing and discounting. This cuts down on both inventory carrying costs and obsolete inventory, which boosts long-term profitability.”
• Low cost: “Barcodes offer tremendous value, as the upfront investment is not large compared to systems that provide comparable benefits. Companies can create a limited number of barcodes for internal use for a low price, and as their needs grow, the cost of supporting technology remains reasonable.”
The End of the Barcode?
The next-generation “barcode” with which most of us are familiar is the quick response (QR) code, a two-dimensional (2D) code that can contain even more data. There are, however, other codes being developed to replace the barcode. The following video, created by GS1, gives a brief history of the barcode and explains why new codes are needed that provide more data for digital supply chains.
McCue insists that most businesses could benefit from using barcodes or their successors. He explains, “Few technologies have gained such widespread adoption over the last half century as barcodes, and for good reason. They are a simple, effective and extremely reliable way to track inventory, which represents a large chunk of potential revenue and expenses for many companies. New businesses or those that don’t yet use barcodes should figure out what type of barcodes best meet their needs and be sure to use and scan them consistently. It’s a small investment that provides a rapid return on investment through improved inventory control and accuracy and access to real-time data. Barcodes play a central role in giving companies the visibility they need to control costs and provide an excellent customer experience.”
If 1D barcodes do fade into history, National Barcode Day may transform into National Product Tagging Day. In the Digital Age, data is the lifeblood of most businesses and newer tagging methods provide companies with more data. According to Yossi Sheffi (@YossiSheffi), Director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, data is an organization’s most valuable asset. He writes, “The well-worn adage that a company’s most valuable asset is its people needs an update. Today, it’s not people but data that tops the asset value list for companies.” According to the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, barcode systems have uses beyond the supply chain. They write, “The chief advantage of barcode systems is that they allow users to process detailed information at the moment the barcode is scanned, rather than simply storing information for later processing. For example, ski resorts can affix the codes to skiers and scan the bars when skiers enter ski lifts, thereby allowing the resort to monitor patterns of slope use. Various barcode systems are now used to track a vast range of products as they are manufactured, distributed, stored, sold, and serviced. These products range from processed foods and dry goods to drugs and medical supplies, automotive parts, computer parts, and even library books.” There can be little doubt that the advent of barcodes changed the world for the better and they are certainly deserving of being honored with a national day.
 Staff, “National Barcode Day,” nationaldaycalendar.com.
 “Barcode,” Wikipedia.
 Staff, “Barcode: The Ultimate Guide to Barcodes,” Wasp Barcode Technologies.
 Ian McCue, “Barcodes Defined—How They Work, Benefits & Uses,” Oracle Netsuite, 17 November 2020.
 Yossi Sheffi, “What is a Company’s Most Valuable Asset? Not People,” LinkedIn, 19 December 2018.
 Editors, “Barcode,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.