U.S. News


What the beep? Barcodes get an upgrade 50 years after first scan

A UPC was scanned for the first time at an Ohio supermarket in 1974.
Barcode displayed in a store.
Posted at 3:58 PM, Jun 26, 2024

There are changes coming to checkout lanes near year: The black-and-white bars you see on just about every product sold are getting a small but noticeable makeover.

Shoppers are familiar with the "beep, beep" you hear as store clerks scan each and every Universal Product Code, or UPC.

"The statistic that kind of blows my mind every time I see it is that the barcode is scanned 10 billion times a day worldwide," said Carrie Wilkie, senior vice president of standards and technology at GS1 US, a company known for administering UPC barcodes.

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the first-ever "beep." By that we mean the first scan of a barcode — a "scanniversary," if you will.

It's how we've shopped for 50 years, "something that's just so ingrained in everyday life that we don't think about," Wilkie said.

The barcode's history

On June 26, 1974, a pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum was scanned at an Ohio supermarket, making it the first official barcode scan, according to GS1. Wilkie said, at the point of sale, the code's primary function is price lookup.

"That's been the duty that it has served for the last 50 years," she said.

Since that first scan, barcode usage has vastly expanded, now used in health care and in the supply chain.

What's next for barcodes?

Wilkie said the industry is now in the midst of a transition from the familiar UPC with numbers and straight lines, to 2D barcodes that carry more information, much like a QR code.

"Think about having at your fingertips directly from the brand, more information about the ingredients contained in the product, more information about allergens," Wilkie said.

In a survey by GS1 US, 77% of consumers said product information is important when making a purchase. More than 60% of consumers said they'd be willing to spend more money on a product that offered detailed information such as materials, country of origin or recall alerts.

So, when will consumers notice a change?

Wilkie said companies are already adopting 2D barcodes, but the company's goal is a complete rollout by 2027.

"Getting that information with a simple scan with your phone like you're used to doing today," she said, "and also still moving through the supply chain and going 'beep' at point of sale is really what we're excited about."

Pretty beeping cool.