Contributing Writer,
Techstrong Group

The recent marking of the 50th anniversary of the ubiquitous UPC barcode had as much to do with the future as it did with the past, though both have speed as a central issue.

The “Scanniversary” honored the scanning of the first barcode on June 26, 1974, when a cashier scanned a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio with a Datalogic scanner. It kicked off a digital transformation that is continuing five decades later.

“It was born out of the need to improve checkout in retail grocery stores,” Bob Carpenter, president and CEO of GS1 US, the nonprofit standards organization that administers the UPC barcode, said in a video. “Before the bar code, we had to apply a sticker with a price on every item and then a cashier at checkout would have to key in that price for every single shopper. This was very time consuming.”

Organizations in the retail grocery industry came together in the early 1970s to create a standard that would automatically price every item to improve the speed and efficiency of checking out in stores.”

The use of barcodes by companies grew steadily in the intervening years, with Carpenter estimating that they’re used to identify more than 1 billion products today and are scanned more than 10 billion times every day.

From Barcodes to QR Codes

That said, what’s more pertinent to company executives today is what the UPC barcodes have led to, specifically the two-dimensional QR code, which has been around for almost three decades but whose use accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers can use their smartphones to scan the QR code, which sends them to a website for information from the retailer.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, “marketers latched onto QRs as a way to easily send people to landing pages and specific web content,” Ira Gostin, principal at Gostin Strategic Consulting, wrote in a Forbes column. “Trade shows were fast adopters, as it was easy to walk a trade show, use your QR reader app and go paper-free through the trade show.”

The use of QR codes soon slowed, but “in the spring of 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic in full swing, the QR code raised its head to help out businesses that needed a way to communicate in a suddenly touchless society,” he wrote. “You saw them deployed in restaurants in lieu of menus, on doors to advise of Covid-19 changes, in mailings and connected to landing pages with current news.”

The rise of smartphones also is fueling the QR code’s resurgence. Market research firm Statista is forecasting that the number of smartphone users in the United States who use their devices to scan QR codes for payments or other purposes will grow from 65.7 million in 2020 to 99.5 million by 2025.

Product Information is Important

GS1 US found in a survey that 77% of consumers say that product information is important when making a purchase and that 79% of shoppers are more likely to buy products with a scannable barcode or QR code – with their smartphone – than products without the information they want.

It’s a plus not only for manufacturers, retailers and consumers, but also for hackers, who increasingly are finding ways to leverage QR codes for a range of fraud campaigns, with the Federal Trade Commission in December 2023 issuing a warning about such scams.

Still, QR codes are continuing to evolve. Where they’ve been used to deliver information to customers, increasingly, companies – such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble and Patagonia – are putting QR codes on their products to allow consumers to grab information about what they’re buying, GS1’s Carpenter said.

“Take, for example, a change of an allergen or of nutritional content on a food item,” he said. “That oftentimes can take 18 months or more, given the packaging time in the industry. But with a QR code and a website update, that information can be updated instantaneously to provide better information for the brand owner, retailer, regulator and the consumer that is interacting with that product.”

QR Codes at Checkout

Almost two dozen companies, including Alibaba, IGA, L’Oreal, and the J.M. Smucker Company, this year signed onto GS1’s Sunrise 2027 initiative, agreeing to adopt QR codes, which have higher capacity than UBC barcodes. Manufacturers are aiming to have QR codes with GS1 standards on their products, with retailers having point-of-sale systems at checkout that can scan the codes.

The standards organization said the consumer goods industry once again needs to come together to agree on a new standard.

“What started out as a need for speed with the USB bar code at checkout with GS1 scanners has transformed into a need for real-time access to information about a product, better inventory management, better traceability [and] better sustainability information,” Carpenter said.