UPC at 40: Still Changing the World

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Monday, August 22, 2011

In 1973, a man named Alan Haberman presided over a committee of industry insiders who worked together to create a standard UPC or Universal Product Code symbol. Alan Haberman’s recent death provides a moment to remember just how important to the retail sector, and shopping in America, his work was.
In the 70’s chains of supermarkets began popping up all over in response to the unprecedented suburban population expansion. This rapid growth caused grocers to seek out more efficient ways to manage their inventories, as well as to speed up the supermarket checkout process.

It was during this growth period of the 70’s that Haberman’s committee was formed. The committee chose the UPC system of George Laurer, an IMB engineer. Combined with bar code scanners, Laurer’s system allowed instantaneous inventory control. For his work, Laurer was inducted into the A. James Clark Shool of Engeneering’s hall of fame in 1991.
The genius of Laurer’s UPC system is that it combined optical scanning technology with UPC codes. These codes are read by the scanner which then communicates with a computer to relay the item’s price and any additional information available.
UPC also made an unprecedented level of inventory management as well as automating the process of restocking goods. This tracking method furnished vendors, for the first time, with completely accurate information about which items sold well, and which items did not. Prior to the implementation of UPC, vendors were required to manually inventory their stock to obtain this information.

The first UPC code appeared on a Package of Wrigley’s chewing gum in 1974. Approaching 40 years later, UPC codes have radically changed nearly every aspect of the retail sector. In its latest revolution UPC is helping consumer save money.
The mass adaptation of smartphones has seen consumers using UPC reading applications installed on their phones. These applications read barcodes and determine which store sells a product for the lowest price. UPC reader apps also link to product information, as well as customer reviews and ratings.

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