A Story of the Humble Barcode Arriving in the UK and Some Scottish Comments

Information Contained Within A Barcode

The above information is contained in the below barcode, which Google used to celebrate the barcode and the humble strip of black and white when Google marked the 30th birthday of the barcode in the UK.

Google UK 30th Anniversary of the Barcode

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It is now over four decades since the first barcode was scanned in the UK on 2 October 1979. While that might not seem like a big deal in the general scheme of things, it helped to usher in the beginning of a new age of modern commerce.

The first barcode scan in the UK took place at Keymarkets in Spalding, Lincolnshire.

More than 70,000 barcodes are scanned around the world every second of every day.

A US invention, they finally made their way to the UK in the late 1970s and in October 1979 a momentous event happened at a branch of Key Markets in Spalding, Lincolnshire. The barcode arrived at the till.

So came the beginning of the end for supermarket checkout staff mashing their fingers by spending a lifetime typing in price tags.

According to GS1 UK, the British branch of the global barcode regulator, there were 100 stores scanning at the till by 1984. It was 5,000 by 1991 and 10,000 two years later. By 1995, the figure was 20,000 and GS1 ceased bothering to count. The barcode had won.

But there was a degree of initial scepticism in the UK, says Andrew Osborne, chief technical officer of GS1 UK.

“There was a lot of suspicion in the 1970s. We had to have quite a campaign going around various consumer groups to say that the removal of individual price stickers was not going to lead to people being overcharged.”

And the red lasers of the scanners also prompted concern among unfamiliar shoppers.

“People associated them with Star Wars and were concerned that they were going to be burned or blinded.”

By 1982, 70% of UK grocery goods had barcodes.

The key aspect of the barcode boom, and the one that not all shoppers might appreciate, is that the mere obtaining of the price at the till is only a small part of the benefits.

A fundamental purpose of the barcode is to generate information for a database. In pre-barcode shops, of medium or large size, if you ran out of tomato sauce, it took an alert checkout person or stock manager to notice this had happened. In the gap between running out and restocking, customers could go elsewhere.

Logistics gold

Under a barcode system it is easy to record every transaction and link it into the supply chain, so you never run out of anything. Shops adopting it in the early years soon found they could increase sales.

The next big thing in barcodes is people using their mobile phone cameras as readers.

And the barcode has a life in many logistics systems. It was adopted early by the US Department of Defence. And parcels are now a common home for a black and white strip for tracking purposes.

Shop barcodes usually represent numbers. These are given out in blocks by the not-for-profit GS1, and assigned to items by the users. Each one is a unique product. But there also ways, like code 128, of having barcodes made of letters.

Some Scottish comments from the 30th Anniversary include:

I have a friend who was afraid that the barcode was a sign of the coming of evil. The barcode is typically broken into two sections with the barcode symbol for “6” acting as the three dividers (one at each end and one in the middle) and thus, “666” was on every barcode (it seemed). The book of Revelation doesn’t help when it says you can’t buy or sell without the mark of the beast (13:17–18) but then again… maybe those self-serve checkouts are the embodiment of evil.
Graham, Glasgow

Reading this I remembered back to my first job, age 13 (in 1995), working at a pet shop, and the gentle steady rhythm of stamping price labels onto hamster food. I though I would be one of the younger people to have experienced this. Then I realised I was watching a store assistant on Gap dutifully re-pricing sale items with an old fashioned gun yesterday, and getting annoyed at how the silly little stickers had fallen off so many garments. Although barcodes are great for stock and re-pricing purposes, surely the next step is advance which allows items on the shelf to display their new price during sales? No more of that getting to the till and finding it’s actually £2 joy, but also none of that queuing to find the sale price only to discover it’s still £30! Also, barcodes are fantastic for using calorie counters on smartphones if you get the right app, and I’d seriously consider a barcode wedding ring marking out the date…
Ailsa, Edinburgh

So there you have it, some insight into the British history of this American invention.

Alastair Majury, a director of Majury Change Management Ltd and is a highly experienced Senior Business Analyst / Data Scientist with a proven track record of success planning, developing, implementing and delivering migrations, organisational change, regulatory, legislative, and process improvements for global financial organisations.

For several years now, Alastair has worked extensively with a variety of financial institutions in order to offer the utmost comprehensive services. As a data scientist/business analyst, Alastair Majury is expected to find intuitive and sensible solutions to complex problems.

As a data scientist/business analyst, Alastair Majury has worked closely with several high-profile businesses, such as BNP Paribas, National Australia Bank, Standard Life and the Royal Bank of Scotland Group.​A graduate of University of Glasgow, Alastair Majury earned his M.A. in Economics with Business Economics. Since then, Alastair has undergone several training sessions and earned multiple certifications for a variety of skills. More specifically, he has earned certifications in IAQ, risk management, resource management, and a bevy of other areas. ​Alastair Majury thoroughly enjoys his work.

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Alastair Majury resides locally in the historic Scottish city of Dunblane, and is a Principal Consultant and a Senior Regulatory Business Analyst working across the country. Alastair Majury also serves on the local council (Stirling Council) as Councillor Alastair Majury where he represents the ward of Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, topping the poll.

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