Barcodes now hold more information

| Sunday, June 20, 2010

A shopper in a self-scan checkout line looks for the barcode on each product. Otherwise, those patches of fat and thin stripes that appear on everything from books to soup cans get little notice from the public.

But barcodes are becoming more complex and useful. Newer ones may look like layers of stripes and numbers, or geometric shapes or dots that form patterns inside a square or rectangle.

They hold much more information than their predecessors — and that's creating new functions for codes in a variety of industries, and helping consumers to become better informed, shop more efficiently and save money.

"From the checkout at your local store, to hospital wristbands and medicines to manufacturing environments and even the tiles on the Space Shuttle," said Steve Halliday, president of consulting firm High Tech Aid in Richland, "these relatively simple-looking black and white images continue to deliver incredible value."

Western Pennsylvania is a hub of sorts for barcode technology.

Halliday is a standards liaison for the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility, a Marshall-based, global trade group whose members are 94 manufacturers, distributors and others that develop or use various ID codes.

The first barcodes used commercially were Uniform Product Codes that automated supermarket checkout lines, starting in 1973.

The basic UPC holds only 14 digits' worth of information, while newer codes coming into use now hold up to 71 characters, said Jon Mellor of supply chain standards organization GS1 US, based in Lawrenceville, N.J.

For a shopper, that means a package of ground beef that's past its expiration date can be flagged at the checkout counter. A contaminated or defective product can be pulled from shelves more easily, using batch and serial data.

Merchants will be able to better control costs and stock stores, Mellor said, because they'll know exactly what sells.

Four-digit numbers typically have been used to distinguish different types of produce. For a store that carries Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte bananas, "Before, they just knew they sold a bunch of bananas," he said.

Now, stickers with GS1 DataBar codes appear on up to 80 percent of "loose" fruits and 20 percent of vegetables sold, providing deeper product information, Mellor said. The codes look like two rows of stripes, with numbers in between.

Grocery coupons are changing. UPC codes have appeared on them since 1985, but will start to give way next year to GS1 DataBar codes that hinder fraud and tell a food producer, for example, where coupons for a new breakfast cereal are being redeemed.

One code that's about to become more familiar in Western Pennsylvania is the Quick Response, or QR code.

The random-looking patterns of squares can be captured on a mobile phone with a built-in or downloaded code reader application. Then the user is directed to photos, a website or video.

Within a few weeks, Mattress Discounters will put QR codes on the doors of its 16 stores in the region. Passers-by who can't stop because they're busy or the store is closed can click on the sticker, and pull up sale or product information on their mobile device screens.

Joe and Kathy Kmonk, owners of the Pleasant Hills-based chain, decided to give the codes a try, at the suggestion of marketing firm Higher Images Inc. of Scott.

"We're so technology oriented anymore, so why not?" Joe Kmonk said, adding a restaurant might find the codes more useful to distribute a menu and coupons. Still, unlike print or most other ads, the message tied to a QR Code can be changed whenever they like to update discounts or promote new items, Kmonk said.

The Circulatory Centers, with 19 locations in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, just finished creating videos and other materials to link with QR codes that will appear soon in waiting rooms, and in bus stop and other advertisements.

"This is a natural. Our client base is 35 to 55, so pretty technically savvy," said Michele Larson, marketing director. Videos and written messages linked to the codes will show treatments used on varicose and spider veins, answer common questions and suggest topics to discuss with a physician.

Higher Images works with The Circulatory Centers. "With the type of clients we have, we're always being pushed to come up with the next greatest thing for them. We work with some big advertisers in Pittsburgh and they always want to stay ahead of the curve," said Chris Reidenbaugh, sales and marketing manager for the firm.

Branding Brand, a marketing firm based in Oakland, helped Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. run a promotion last fall at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. Fans at a Brigham Young University football game collected electronic coupons on their mobile devices after clicking on a QR code on a video board.

Zappos, Sephora and Red Bull work with Branding Brand, said Chris Mason, managing director. While he wouldn't discuss specifics, "You can expect a lot more from our clients as this year unfolds" in terms of QR codes and other interactive technologies, he said.

Ticketing firm ShowClix puts both a linear barcode along with a QR code on every ticket it sells, co-founder Lynsie Camuso said.

Workers at event venues then use Google Android-equipped smartphones or regular scanners to read codes on the printed, e-mailed tickets or on another mobile device. Shadyside-based ShowClix gives its clients Nexus One devices loaded with its software.

Jon Rinaldo's firm, Joker Productions, uses the system for concerts at Diesel on the South Side and the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville.

Data from the codes "goes right to the Internet, wirelessly and in real time," he said. It's available instantly, meaning a concertgoer can replace a lost or torn ticket, transfer one to a friend or even run outside, then re-enter.

Camuso said the Android scanners read QR codes quickly. "You can drop a couple of seconds off each scan, and for an event with thousands of ticketholders, that makes a difference," she said.

Google is giving businesses stickers with QR codes that bring up a mobile version of a Google web page. There, the businesses can post merchandise details or coupons.

Microsoft launched a similar effort last year with its Tag campaign. Businesses ranging from major brands like Proctor & Gamble to neighborhood garden shops can create Tags, which are smaller than QR codes and easier to scan. Tags look like squares filled with colorful triangles and creating and scanning them can be done at no cost.

Barcode development has accelerated in recent years, Mellor of GS1 said.

In the 37 years since the first UPC symbols on groceries were scanned, "We have probably five or six new types of barcodes, some within the past decade. And we're seeing a lot more interest from industries that haven't used bar codes in the past, like food service," he said.

The likely outcome• "Things are going to move faster, and be less expensive," he said.

Additional Information:

About AIM Inc.

Stands for: Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility

Purpose: Trade association and worldwide authority for 35 years on automatic identification and data collection technologies, such as barcodes.

Headquarters: Marshall

Members : 94 manufacturers, distributors, government agencies and others in 43 countries that use or develop ID technologies. Committees develop code standards,

Staff : Five employees

History : Originally part of the Material Handling Institute, which contracted with Shea Management of Fox Chapel for support staff. MHI moved to Charlotte, N.C., in the mid-1980s, but AIM stayed in the region and became an independent organization.

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