The Retail Revolution: How Joseph Woodland’s Barcode Helps Us Understand Consumer Behaviour

The modern bar code had its origins 64 years ago on the sands of Miami Beach. Joseph Woodland, then a mechanical engineer in training, was responding to a plea that had been presented before a dean of the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia by a local supermarket manager – to find a way by which product data could automatically be captured at check-out counters.
Woodland, who had been a Boy Scout, was familiar with the Morse Code. That was the what leaped to his mind when he found himself idly doodling in the sand in Miami and looked down to see that he had drawn four lines. He saw the potential immediately, if instead of Morse Code’s dots and dashes, he used thick and thin lines.

Woodland and fellow Drexel graduate student Bernard Silver had been working to find a solution to the problem of how to efficiently capture product data; now, fueled by Woodland’s epiphany, the two began work on a two-dimensional linear code. They decided that a circular pattern would be better as it was omnidirectional and checkout clerks would not have to be precise with the code’s orientation before scanning it. The duo was awarded a patent in 1952 for the invention, but sadly it would not be used till 1974 when the technology to scan it – laser scanning and microprocessors – was finally invented. Woodland, in the meantime, had joined IBM and he and Silver sold the patent for a mere $US 15,000.

Woodland died earlier this month and, despite the early disappointment regarding the commercial use of the barcode, was honoured during his lifetime with the National Medal of Technology, which he was awarded in 1992. While the barcode, or the Universal Product Code as it came to be called, has become such an ubiquitous sight that we don’t pay much attention to it, this is a good time to reflect on why exactly Woodland should continue to be hailed as one of the great inventors of the last century and why his barcode is such a revolutionary invention.

1) The first and most obvious use of the barcode is inventory control. By the simple act of scanning, a barcode can help keep track of products that are added or subtracted from an inventory count.

2) Barcodes are useful in error prevention also by automatically tracking product information, which results in reducing costs. In fact, the error rate for barcodes is one for every three million entries.

3) Barcodes are inexpensive to design and print and can be customized for any kind of data collection. Another great advantage is that they can be attached to any surface.

4) Frequently, retailers issue coupons with barcodes to their customers, which can be used at any of the retailers’ outlets to avail discounts and special offers. This is one of the most basic ways in which barcodes are used to build customer engagement and loyalty.

However, these are just the physical attributes of the barcode that make it such an obvious necessity in any modern economy. The real big change that the barcode has brought about is in the mindset of the people using them. Companies and retailers have quickly realized that barcodes are not just a great way to keep track of inventories and shipments, but are also an easy tool to collect data about consumer behaviour. Barcodes have helped us understand what products are popular and fast moving and with incredible ease have given access to data that would not be easy to track. This is an important factor in an economy that is becoming increasingly aware of what consumers are demanding. In a sense then, the barcode has become an emblem of the growing consumer-consciousness that more and more companies are displaying today.

Joseph Woodland

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