Monthly Archives: August 2010

What is the difference between UPC and SKU?

Are UPC (Universal Product Code) the same as SKU (Stock Keeping Unit)? No, they are not. Both codes are used to identify products, but in a different way.

UPC codes are standarized by an international association called GS1 who assigns each manufacturer a unique prefix for using in their UPC barcodes; then the rest of the UPC code is chosen by the manufacturer who ensures each product variation receives a unique code.
The UPC is affixed to the product all through its life cycle, starting from manufacturing till it’s in the customer’s hands.
On the other hand, SKUs may be numeric or alphanumerical and are assigned by each company for stock keeping purposes and internal operations.  This means that it is the company, store or retailer who decides the format of the SKU code depending on its needs. SKUs must be unique only inside the same company.  A product will have a different SKU on two different companies.

In conclusion, UPC are for universal use and SKUs are for internal use.



External related links:

Difference between UPC and SKU

Universal Product Code (UPC)

Stock Keeping Unit (SKU)

Are the description and price included in barcodes?

People wonder if barcodes have descriptive information encoded in them like prices or product names. The answers is generally no. So how does the point of sales systems know the product that is scanning? Well, UPC barcodes (the ones that you see almost in any product at the supermarket) encode just a big number that uniquely identifies the product worldwide. When the cashier scans that product, the point of sale computer reads that number and then looks for the product details in a local database. That database can contain information like the product name, the price, available promotions, pictures, etc.

However, there are exceptions, like barcodes used in variable measure items which do include the price of the item.

Wearable Bluetooth ring barcode scanner

Mobile workers who need to scan barcodes will love this ring scanner manufactured by LXE which allows you to operate it hands-free while you carry out other tasks.
It has a Bluetooth module to transmit wirelessly data up to 30 feet away and is able to scan 1D and 2D barcodes.
A futuristic proposition that could be a good solution for all those who need to be in constant movement.

Creative barcodes

Everybody knows how a barcode looks like. They are just a series of vertical lines with different thickness which together form a rectangle and have a number below. But, do they have to be that boring? The answer is no.
As long as the scanners can read them, they can look more creative as a Japanese company realized. They work with manufacturers of barcode labels to create innovative and eye catching barcodes.

This is another way to call buyer’s attention and nowadays it is very used in Japanese products and surely will be used in other countries as well.

Barcode art

Related links:

Barcode Art From Japan: Black & White CAN Get Along!

The barcode started the revolution

Could you imagine a world where barcodes doesn’t exist? When you get to the checkout lane the cashier would have to remember the price of each item or lookup for it somewhere. That would be very slow and could become annoying if there are many customers waiting in the line.

Well,  some decades ago, before the barcode was invented, that was normal and everything was done manually. Stores had to shut the place down at least once in a month and count every can, bag and parcel in their shelves in order to maintain track of inventory.

The first attempt to make more efficient the checkout process was done by a business student named  Wallace Flint who wrote a master thesis in which he envisioned a supermarket where customers would perforate cards to mark their selections; at the checkout counter they would insert them into a reader, which would activate machinery to bring the purchases to them on conveyer belts. The problem was that the equipment was bulky and very expensive.

In 1948, a local food chain store owner approached Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia asking about research into a method of automatically reading product information during checkout.  Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute, along with fellow graduate student Norman Joseph Woodland, teamed together to develop a solution.

Woodland first proposed using ultraviolet light sensitive ink. A working prototype was built but rejected as being too unstable and expensive.
On 1949, Woodland and Silver succeeded in building a working prototype describing their invention as “article classification…through the medium of identifying patterns”.  On 1952, they were granted a patent (US Patent #2,612,994) for their “Classifying Apparatus and Method”.

In 1966 the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) held a meeting where they discussed the idea of using automated checkout systems. RCA, having purchased rights to the original Woodland patent, had attended the meeting and set up an internal project to develop a system based on the bullseye code. The Kroger grocery chain volunteered to test it.

In mid-1970, the NAFC in cooperation with consulting firm McKinsey & Co., developed a standardized 11-digit code to identify any product,then sent out a contract tender to develop a barcode system to print and read the code. The request went to Singer, National Cash Register (NCR), Litton Industries, RCA, Pitney-Bowes, IBM and many others. A wide variety of barcode approaches were studied, including linear codes, RCA’s bullseye concentric circle code, systems with starburst patterns, and even odder varieties.

Bullseye barcode

In the spring of 1971 RCA demonstrated their bullseye code at another industry meeting, and in 1972 began a test of their system in a Kroger store in Cincinnati. Barcodes were printed on small pieces of adhesive paper, and attached by hand by store employees when they were adding price tags. The code proved to have a serious problem. During printing, presses sometimes smear ink in the direction the paper is running, rendering the code unreadable in most orientations. A linear code, like the one being developed by Woodland who was working at IBM, however, was printed in the direction of the stripes, so extra ink simply makes the code “taller” while remaining readable, and on 1973 the IBM UPC code was selected by NAFC as their standard.

NCR installed a testbed system at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, USA. On June 26, 1974, Clyde Dawson pulled a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum out of his basket and it was scanned by Sharon Buchanan at 8:01 am. The pack of gum and the receipt are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution. It was the first commercial appearance of the UPC.

By 1980 the technology was being adopted by 8000 stores per year.

Current UPC Barcode