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Happy Birthday, UPC bar code

GS1 celebrates the 35th anniversary of the Universal Product Code bar code on June 3.
FILED IN:  Machinery  > Labeling  > RFID

The 35th anniversary of the ubiquitous Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code is  celebrated by GS1 US (, the developer and administrator of the UPC for more than 200,000 businesses in the United States, on June 3.

The organization will mark the event with a giant UPC-adorned birthday cake for more than 800 attendees at its annual U Connect Conference in Orlando, FL.

One of the world’s best-known symbols, the UPC comprises a row of 59 machine-readable black and white bars and 12 human-readable digits. Both the bars and the digits convey the same information: the identity of a specific product and its manufacturer.

It started with Wrigley's gum

Originally developed to help supermarkets speed up the checkout process, the first live use of a UPC took place in a Marsh Supermarkets store in Troy, OH, on June 26, 1974, when a cashier scanned a package of Wrigley’s gum. It ushered in extraordinary economic and productivity gains for shoppers, retailers and manufacturers alike, with estimated annual cost savings of $17 billion in the grocery sector alone, according to one study.

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Replacing individual price-labeling with the UPC resulted in faster, more accurate checkouts, saving consumers time and money. Shelves were replenished more quickly, and stores were able to increase the frequency and variety of sales incentives. It also simplified product returns and rebates.

The UPC was quickly adopted by other industries, which sought to capture the benefits it had delivered to the grocery industry. Today, UPCs are scanned more than 10 billion times a day in applications spanning more than 25 industries, including consumer packaged goods, apparel, hardware, food services, healthcare, logistics, government, and high-tech.

“The UPC made the modern retail store possible,” says Rodney McMullen, vice chairman of The Kroger Co., which operates more than 4,000 stores in different formats and under different banners, or names. “It allows us to carry tens of thousands of items in a given store and move shoppers through quickly while offering them many different ways to save money.”

Integral to the UPC's success are its flexibility – usable on myriad surfaces – and the foresight of the people who decided to design it with the capacity to identify millions of unique items. Although the range of its use today was not envisioned in 1974, when supermarkets carried a fraction of the inventory they carry today, the UPC nevertheless accommodates the creation each year of tens of thousands of new products.

“Industry would not be as efficient without the UPC," says Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, and chairman of the GS1 US Board of Governors. “The UPC provides a basis for the industry to track products from production to shelf, to move products between companies, and to get products to shoppers quickly.”


Every UPC incorporates three elements: the brand owner’s GS1 Company Prefix, the specific item’s “reference number,” and a “check digit,” which is calculated by the combination of the preceding numbers and ensures data accuracy.

Contrary to one popular myth, the UPC does not contain a product’s country of origin. But the UPC is one manifestation of the Global Trade Item Number, a foundational aspect of the GS1 System that enables consistent, standard identification of products and other items in the supply chain globally.

“The UPC really is fundamental to commerce,” says Bob Carpenter, chief executive officer of GS1 US. “It took time to build momentum, but it has succeeded because it benefits everyone: consumers, retailers, and manufacturers. And it has a lot of life left in it.”

More innovations in product identification

The UPC’s success has inspired the creation of new ways to identify products for the benefit of consumers and industry:

• The newest bar code, GS1 DataBar™, can be found increasingly on coupons and loose produce, such as apples, pears, and tomatoes. On Jan. 1, 2010, its “sunrise date,” supermarkets will begin scanning and processing the GS1 DataBar, which can be configured in different formats to fit a smaller space or carry additional information, such as “best before” or expiration dates, or lot numbers.

• GS1 Data Matrix, a bar code that resembles a random-patterned checkerboard, holds large amounts of data in a relatively small space as compared to traditional linear barcodes, and is becoming increasingly popular for a wide range of applications including aerospace, pharmaceutical, and medical-device manufacturing.

• The Electronic Product Code™ (EPC) carries information similar to that within a bar code, but is read by radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology without a direct sight line, rather than being scanned. The EPC also can carry and transmit additional information. In the retail environment, EPC can enable a checkout process that is nearly instantaneous.

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