Forty years ago few people believed that the Universal Product Code (UPC) , the optical bar code developed under the sponsorship of leaders and visionaries in the technology and food distribution industry, would become ubiquitous across the planet or that it would last for longer than a couple of decades.
But the IBM engineer, George J. Laurer, who along with several collaborators, actually created the specific schema for uniquely identifying every product in a typical store, created something that has exceeded all those early expectations.
It is now endemic to the retail experience. Not surprisingly, that has strained some of the support organizations created to support the deployment of the symbol and has become a bonanza for others.
The Bar Code News™ had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Laurer on this matter. His thoughts? "At this point in time access for applying the bar code on products must become as ubiquitous as its use for transactions in commerce."
The original technology focused on larger companies such as General Foods, which moved so much volume that the cost of a UPC bar code was trivial per unit sold. In fact, under the jurisdiction of the Uniform Code Council (UCC), there was a flat fee of roughly $300 for 100,000 UPC codes, and no annual fees. Today however the organizations in charge of dispensing new numbers (at zero cost to them, save the need to keep track and not duplicate numbers), charge about $700 for just 100 numbers (it varies per country) and annual fees based on the number of bar codes that they have.
In the time of a very weak economy, when we are depending on small businesses for job creation and innovation, these costs are simply too high.
In classic open market style, alternative sources for barcodes have become available. Companies who may have purchased the 100,000 item bar code package from the original industry source, choose to make their thousands of unused UPC numbers available to new smaller companies at only fractions of the current cost from the original industry source. And, with no annual fees.
But there is a catch here, according to Mr. Laurer; certain large volume retailers, for example, Wal-Mart, Macy's, and Kroger, choose to say they will not carry products identified with UPC numbers that have been obtained from resellers and not directly from the current industry source.
The effect of this is to support a monopolistic practice that inflates the cost of these market-required symbols by very large amounts. The large volume retailers enforcing this practice may believe this prevents pirating of numbers or protection against degradation of the symbol technology itself, but it is not necessary. The technology of the symbol is much more robust than anyone appreciated at the start.
For large volumes, the cost of acquiring the unique barcode is still manageable. But for the very small company, who might need 100 bar codes or less, the cost of obtaining the rights to use the UPC Bar code is much more significant.
How can these small companies, (that economists state our finances and future jobs are depending upon) grow, if they are blocked from large scale distribution by what is effectively an artificial monopolistic practice?
In an effort to dispel any concerns about the validity of a specific barcode, the Barcode's creator has established the Authenticated UPC Registration Directory – a website that will allow registration of UPC codes purchased in the aftermarket. The directory will contain prefixes of owners wishing to sell the unneeded excess of numbers purchased in the past.
The site is a clearing house for identifying numbers obtained without a contractual obligation to not resell the included numbers. (Originally, getting a UPC code did not restrict one from selling unused numbers).
As the site develops retailers, small start-up manufacturing companies, and consumers can come to the site to check if a UPC number they are interested in has been verified to be legitimate and to identify who is the current owner.
"It won't happen overnight, but I hope that as time progresses even the largest of retailers will find it is important to include every supplier in the market and not to artificially freeze out the small company struggling to start and grow," says Laurer.
Today he is still promoting its use and finding ways to make it more useful. The Authenticated UPC Registration Directory has been a dream of his for many years.
Joining the Authenticated UPC Registration Directory is straight forward for UPC prefix owners wishing to resell their unused numbers. After providing their organizational information, paying a small initiation fee necessary to keep the site running, and sending copies of their original documentation granting them their prefix, they may upload all the numbers they previously sold.
People coming to the site will find information about the how the various forms of the UPC are formed and used. Manufacturers can provide to the trade additional information such as package dimensions and suggested wording for retail receipt tapes.
Of course retailers can find that their vendor has legitimate barcodes and get this additional information. You can see this information at http://authenticatedupcregistrationdirectory.org or http://approvedupcs.com.
Registration is available to interested people who own prefixes, just wish to register their number or a smaller list of numbers, or simply to individuals who support the work and would like to become associated with it.
The Authenticated UPC Registration Directory will be a benefit to every small company needing to acquire a UPC code. Wal-Mart would do well to remember its very humble beginnings not so very long ago, and have a little compassion for those who seek the kind of success its founder had. In fact, the Wal-Mart Corporate website has this quote* from Sam Walton:
"If we work together, we'll lower the cost of living for everyone...we'll give the world an opportunity to see what it's like to save and have a better life."
Perhaps Wal-Mart can work to reconcile its founders philosophy with its current insistence that small businesses (whose owners and employees shop at Wal-Mart too) pay a hundred times more than necessary to get a bar code.
The Bar Code News has sought comments from GS1, the current organization issuing new UPC numbers, numerous times over the past year - through chat groups, direct contact with GS1 personnel, and their PR firm. We've also offered to publish GS1 responses and opinions. We have yet to receive a response.
The snub doesn't offend us, and the offer to publish a GS1 response/opinion/commentary remains open. In addition to the need for a publicly accessible database of all UPC users, there is a need for a database of all products carrying bar codes. While several attempts have been made to gather this information, no database that we've seen even comes close, including the bar code lookup on GS1's own site, where even their own major clients (many Fortune 500 companies) have not posted their information. We will be addressing this need in an upcoming article. User opinion, industry comments and general feedback are sought.
Written by Craig Aberle
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