Tech Viewpoint: Three ways the UPC barcode is still transforming retail
The UPC barcode is middle-aged, but as vital as ever.
This week marked the 45th anniversary of the first-ever UPC barcode scan – a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a Marsh Supermarket location in Troy, Ohio. Barcodes have been a legacy technology since the early 1980s, but they continue to serve as the foundation for retail transformation. Here are three ways the good old-fashioned barcode continues to support next-generation industry evolution.
Retail is continuing to become a more mobile-oriented operation, across the enterprise. On the front end, customers are utilizing smartphones to check prices and product information, place items on shopping lists, and pay for purchases. On the back end, retail associates leverage smartphones and devices for everything from checking stock levels (more on that in a moment) to checking out customers minus the hassle of a queue.
None of this cost- and time-saving mobilized retailing would be possible without a standardized, scannable method of recognizing and capturing product information. The smart device-centric era of retail that we are entering owes as much to barcode symbology introduced in 1974 as to smartphone technology introduced in 2010.
It is a retail truism that omnichannel commerce looks easy on the front end, but is extremely challenging on the back end. Without the easy product traceability provided by UPC barcodes, seamless retail offerings like buy online and pickup/return in store, ship from store, and fulfilling out-of-stock items from nearby stores and warehouses would not exist.
Barcodes provide retailers and their supply chain partners a convenient, accurate means of tracking and tracing products from source to shelf. Capturing barcode data enables retail enterprise participants to locate and authenticate individual items from any point. Without the accessibility of barcodes, the task of locating a product ordered online from the shelf or back room of a store for curbside pickup within 30 minutes would go from intricate to impossible.
Digital communication tools, including text, email and social media, lend themselves to delivering up-to-the-minute promotions to customers. Real-time discounts and offers can be based on factors such as customer proximity to a store, shopper browsing or purchase history (which can include their current activity), or certain products matching current local conditions, such as weather or a community event.
However, the ability to send a customer a real-time promotion is useless if a retailer cannot be sure of their current inventory levels at local stores and/or warehouses. In fact, a real-time promotion that fails due to out-of-stocks could even drive a previously loyal customer to a competitor.
As mentioned above, UPC barcodes enable retailers to easily perform inventory stock counts (mobile devices are just one tool for doing so). Having a current and accurate understanding of inventory at a local level is more important than ever in an age where coupons are not only mailed every week, but texted every second. Twentieth-century barcodes are the underpinning of 21st-century retail promotions.