But for retailers, it was a boon. They could keep exact track of inventories, eliminating the need to make a "best guess" when reordering from suppliers. As soon as a can of soup is swiped over those crisscrossed red lines, a computer registers the size, flavor, quantity or color, and can send a reorder message to suppliers.
The bar code can quickly determine what is selling. If a certain brand of basketball shoe is outselling others, word reaches manufacturers almost instantly so that production lines can be shifted to meet demand.
And if a product turns out to be defective or tainted, suppliers can recall specific batches rather than calling back all the cans of tuna that were made a certain day or week.
A few businesses have not adopted the UPC. Trader Joe's, a grocery chain with 120 stores in the U.S., prefers to put its investment into store product, not expensive scanners, according to Michele S. Gorski, director of communications. Further, she says, the constant ebb and flow of products in the business encourages inaccuracies in a system in which information is constantly re-entered.
Trader Joe's idea of customer service, she adds, requires the checkout person to call out the prices as items are rung up, making the process less impersonal.
But bar codes can be very personal. If you pay with your credit card, retailers and manufacturers can quickly build up vast quantities of information on what you like to buy, when you buy it and how often you have to replace it. This allows them to target you with information about new products they think you might like, even as they target your next-door neighbors with information about what they like.
Or companies can publish that information, selling it to other groups that might also want to target specific consumers.
So far, only in science fiction are bar codes tattooed on people so their every move can be tracked. But you might have noticed, as you seal up that envelope containing your tax return, that there's a bar code on it. Relax. That just tells the regional service center how to sort your return once they receive it.
Pub Date: 3/30/99