There's an old joke about how those laser scanners in the grocery store have dramatically changed the checkout-line experience.
In the old days, the clerk would pick up each item, look at it, announce the price and ring it up: "Dollarthirtynine, twonineteen, sixtythree, dollareleven " Then would come an item without a price tag. So the clerk would get on the microphone and holler to the whole store, "Al, how much for a jar of olives?"
Nowadays, all the products have bar codes, so the clerk just has to pass it over a scanner. And then pass it over again. And reorient the package and pass it over again. And again. And then get on the microphone and holler, "Al, how much for a jar of olives?"
The bar code is the UPC, or Universal Products Code, and though it might seem familiar, it created a revolution, first in the grocery industry and then in almost every other consumer-products field. This year, Americans will have been trying to figure out those patterns of thick and thin lines for 25 years.
It's fairly simple. The first six digits are assigned by an outfit called the Uniform Code Council (UCC) of Dayton, Ohio. A business buys a membership in that organization and is assigned the first half of the code -- the first six digits. The business uses the next five to identify its products, and the final digit is a "check" that helps verify that the code has been read correctly by the scanner.
The lines are read as the laser bounces off the stripes, which are the optical equivalent of Morse code -- with thick and thin lines instead of dashes and dots.
Bar codes appear to be everywhere, though it's impossible to determine exactly how many products bear the mark. Terry M. Erman, director of marketing and public relations at the UCC, says that in the United States more than 210,000 businesses are members, and each year about 20,000 new members join. Worldwide, the UCC works in partnership with EAN International, establishing global standards for bar-coding. More than 800,000 companies around the globe mark and track their products using this system.
Why join? The benefit, according to Erman, is that it "enables companies in any industry to communicate in a common business language anywhere in the world."
The usefulness of this little pattern extends far beyond the mere buying and selling of the everyday marketplace. The American Red Cross, which in 1998 handled nearly 6 million pints of blood, uses bar coding to track nearly every drop of the fluid as it is broken into its components.
Rarely is whole blood transfused anymore in the United States. It is broken down into its three main components -- red blood cells, platelets and plasma -- and then sent where it's needed. If you feel sick a day or two after giving blood, you can call the Red Cross with your tracking number, and they can pull your plasma out of the supply in California, your platelets from Des Moines and your red cells from Albuquerque.
Michael W. Fulwider, a Red Cross spokesman, says that the use of bar coding "certainly has improved our ability to handle blood products and to balance supply levels."
The Universal Products Code was born of desperation in the grocery industry. The deep recession of the early 1970s bit deeply into the pockets of the major food chains. Where profits had traditionally hovered around the 1 percent mark, by 1973 they were barely reaching half that figure.
Chains were eager to find ways to stop their losses, but boosting prices was likely to stimulate resistance from consumers already experiencing double-digit inflation. Also, given the nature of the business, employee layoffs weren't likely to raise profitability.
That meant increasing productivity. But how?
In a rare act of cooperation among competitors, a consortium of grocery-company officials concluded that making the checkout experience more efficient might increase profits (more people checking out per hour) and make the experience less onerous for the consumer.
Once the basic concept for the bar code was devised, the challenge was to make it universally readable for the huge variety of product sizes and shapes. Among the designs tested were target patterns and blobs that looked like Rorschach blots. The design had to be small enough to fit on a pack of chewing gum but big enough to contain the necessary information.
The familiar small, squarish patch of lines about the size of a postage stamp made its debut at a Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in June 1974 and began a quiet revolution in the way we shop. Price tags no longer had to be affixed to products but could be displayed on the shelf lip.
Many shoppers hated the new system. It was hard to read prices on upper shelves. It was nearly impossible to keep a running tab on how much you had in your cart. A growing mistrust of big corporations found an easy target in this new scheme to "hide" the prices. The UPC became the subject of parody and satire.