Barcode turns 30

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The Boston Globe online has a mildly interesting article about the UPC (universal product code) or barcode that graces all our groceries. They give a potted history of the code and mention the various urban myths that rose around it including:

  • Some considered that the barcode represented the Anti-Christ
  • Others considered that the barcode was a corporate plot against consumers (though the lack of technology before the bar code had not stopped collusion).

The article goes on about the inventory savings items, but neglects to mention other add-ons that came out of it including:

  • Near-real time sales data, which could be datamined for purchase paterns, this allowed Walmart to famously increase beer sales by putting a six pack and nappies (US Eng: diapers) together for stressed fathers
  • Increasing the power of retailers who can provide research companies and suppliers with data on product sales faster, fattening the coffers of AC Neilsen
  • Dramatically altered store design by being able to trial changes in layout or promotion and see the results through the tills, this was as dramatic as the spreadsheet allowing senior business folk to run what if scenarios
  • Loyalty cards, when you can analyse purchase patterns and inventories, match them both together to decide how to influence consumer behaviour

A less documented feature of the barcode is that it revolutionised kick-backs for music shop workers. Record labels have been hot beds of interesting accounting practices at the best of times, which is why these practices could happen. When I DJ’ed far more (and had more time); I used to hang with a number of record shop assistants who worked in ‘chart shops’.

Being a DJ meant tapping into a number of sources. I was signed up to promo agencies for white labels, but that wasn’t that great and a lot of the quality was pretty awful.

I was also connected to the specialist shops for my imports, promos that I didn’t have access to and underground vinyl.

The small chart shops was where I got some of the best British dance music cuts. The smaller independent chart shops got a lot of support from the major labels:

  • Cheaper records to sell on to the public
  • Items often arrived in their stores first, before the big chains
  • Exclusive access to limited edition remix records
  • Instore band signings (again often at the expense of big chains like HMV)
  • Promotional record label items: jackets, bags, gig tickets, artwork
  • One high selling record for free with every two hype items they put through the scanner (note that I did not say sell)

I used to occasionally drive with friends to Fox’s Records in Doncaster, one of the largest chart shores. Closer to home I had a good relationship with Jez and Tony who used to run Penny Lane Birkenhead. Tony had been with the firm for time and had risen to be the store manager at this branch. Tony was a seasoned ligger. His assistant, Jez was a quiet dreadlocked skater kid who used to work in a secondhand dance vinyl shop in the Palace – at that time a trendy shopping complex on Wood Street in central Liverpool.

This barcode revolution did not happen overnight, I still remember being in primary school in Liverpool and seeing sticky price tags and the guns being used in the local Tesco and Asda supermarkets. Bargain bucket department story chain TJ Hughes, only implemented a stock management system utilising bar codes less than five years ago after new owners discovered stock in their warehouses that may have been over ten years old. The local supermarket to my Uncle living in rural Western Ireland still uses sticky price labels with no barcode scanner in sight, a nod to our modern times came when the labels changed colour from white to fluorescent yellow. More related content can be found here.