Happy 40th birthday to the barcode - but is it time for a change?

Simon Walker, director of innovation at Stibo Systems15 July 2014 | Simon Walker

On 26 June 1974 - just over 40 years ago - a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum became the first item to be scanned at a supermarket checkout, a year after the retail industry adopted the GS1 barcode as a unified standard for identifying and tracking products. Today, barcodes are still an integral retail technology and part of the high street experience.

According to GS1, the not-for-profit organisation that monitors demand chain standards, the barcode has created huge efficiencies in the supply chain, enabling 21 per cent shorter lead times for warehouse operators, 42 per cent lower costs for distribution centres and 32 per cent fewer out-of-stocks for retailers. This saves the UK retail industry £10.5 billion every year.

However, the demands of today’s multi-channel shoppers and the emergence of online only brands means GS1 is having to adapt the design and function of its barcode to meet new product information demands.

Firstly, the advent of new channels means that accurate and consistent information across consumer touchpoints is becoming more important to keep the customer experience seamless. As a result, manufacturing and supply organisations are now key to help maintain brand consistency and drive sales.

In addition, retailers now need to manage more product information than ever before. From stock, location and supplier data to digital and marketing assets, they need to compile data across multiple domains, countries, languages and channels. Managing this vast amount of information means more sophisticated systems are needed to ensure supply chain operations keep running effectively and efficiently.

So will we see a new barcode? Of course, a new system would mean a barcode could inform retailers about everything from package variation to expiry dates, ensuring product information management is made simpler. Industry leaders, including GS1 UK, have discussed this over the last year, but its introduction is likely to cause operational problems and may bring high implementation costs in its initial stages.

We don’t know yet what the next barcode will look like, but it’s clear agility is needed to ensure retailers can adapt to the multi-channel environment. With a master data management process configured with GS1’s product information specifications, manufacturers and suppliers will be able to easily, regularly and accurately provide the required information, saving both time and money. It will be the next step in the journey towards a new barcode, enabling manufacturers, suppliers and retailers alike to equip themselves for the growing demand for information from the multi-channel consumer.

☛  Simon Walker is director of innovation at Stibo Systems

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