12 innovations around Christmas - 1: Universal Product Code (UPC)

It’s common to shopping around the world. It’s checked on every product when you go through the register. It’s the humble barcode.

You probably don’t give it much thought but the Universal Product Code (UPC) and the scanners that appear in stores have certainly innovated the way in which we make purchases. 

Originally proposed in the 1940s and trialled  through to the 1960s with limited success, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the barcode became commonplace. Today, it appears on all our common everyday purchases.

Scanning the product and having all of its information passed directly to a computer speeds up sales for the store. It gets the customer paying and out the door faster. On the shop floor, staff can scan products for inventory and stocktaking purposes. Placing an order for the next stock delivery is simple, scan the barcodes and enter the number to order. On delivery, scan and check the amount that has been received. 

Imagine if all our sales were still manually inputted? Some places still do this, but consider the amount of purchases we make in a week or a month. If manual processes still applied to all our purchases, we’d be doing our Christmas shopping until Easter!  

What is the next iteration in this space? Many are touting Quick Response (QR) codes, Radio-frequency identification (RFID) and other similar technologies to replace the humble UPC. 

In 2009, Microsoft Office Labs released a package of Future Vision videos, one of which pictures a new world of shopping. In this video, the shopping experience is very similar to what we experience in store today. One noticeable change is the lines at the checkout - in fact, you don’t even have to use the checkout! Items are scanned in trolley for mobile/online payments. Prices are updated across the store by a simple click of a button.

You can watch the video Retail Future Vision from Microsoft Office Labs on YouTube.

It’s been several years since this future vision was put to video. Is it still current? Is this future that far away, or is it even coming at all?

12 December 2016

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