The barcode turned 50. Here’s how far we’ve come

From price-tag stickers to virtual restaurant menus, the history of scanning is beeping interesting.
article cover

Anna Kim

4 min read

Break out your best black and white finery: The barcode celebrates its 50th birthday this summer!

Since the first pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum bore the striped label and made a scanner go “beep” on June 26, 1974, the humble barcode has spent the last five decades making cashiers’ lives easier (like the true Cancer it is).

As times have changed, the barcode has evolved to keep up. Now, we’re in the heyday of its next evolution, 2D barcodes, including what are more commonly known as QR codes. This tech cycle has implications for sustainability, consumer education, and more, according to Carrie Wilkie, SVP of standards and technology at GS1 US, the standards organization that underpins the barcode ecosystem.

“There’s all sorts of stuff that comes next. And I think that will just continue to evolve, as we have different demands as consumers, as retailers, and [as] regulators have different demands for what information they need,” she said. “And then, as the tech in our pockets continues to evolve: What can we read? How can we read it? How can that information become available to us?”

Early beginnings

The introduction of barcodes themselves was a revolution at the time, Wilkie said.

“If you’re old enough, you may remember people used to go around grocery stores with price sticker guns and put price stickers on everything. That usually matched up with a cashier at a checkout line who was manually entering the price off of those tags,” according to Wilkie. “It was just inefficient, it took a long time, and it was prone to errors.”

The grocery industry decided there must be a better way and agreed in 1973 to adopt the UPC barcode system, which allowed scanners to read and transmit the item’s price. Companies quickly figured out that they could use the barcode for much more than point-of-sale convenience, and within a decade, barcodes adorned shipping cartons for logistical tracking.

The industry also realized that UPC labels didn’t have to be large, or rectangular, introducing in 1998 the fingerprint-sized stickers you’ll often see on produce and other small items.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.

The barcode is still scanned more than 10 billion times a day across the world, according to GS1, but companies are seeking to cram even more and more information into the label. Enter the QR code.

Another dimension

The pixelated boxes we now recognize as QR codes aren’t exactly (ahem) emerging tech; they were introduced in 1994 by Japan’s auto industry as a way to encode a lot of data into a postage-stamp-sized space. Wilkie noted that, although not new, QR codes saw a mass resurgence in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic “when every menu in the world kind of disappeared.”

She said we’ll only be seeing more of the black-and-white boxes as companies embrace their versatility. Because QR codes can be scanned with phone cameras as well as optical-based retail equipment, they can present different yet useful information to both the cashier and the consumer—depending on who’s scanning, she said.

“Maybe it’s taking us to nutritional information or a game or a coupon or promotion,” Wilkie said. “But from a retailer and supply chain point of view, it still goes ‘beep’ at point of sale, and it still moves through the supply chain.”

This means people can potentially receive more information about the products in their carts and homes, including documenting whether a product’s materials were ethically sourced and how to clean and dispose of them properly, she said. For food items, Wilkie said that QR codes can track shipment numbers, making it potentially easier to tell whether the items are subject to a recall and should be thrown out. The flexible size of the QR code also allows packages to get smaller, further eliminating waste, she said.

But by the time the barcode’s centennial rolls around, Wilkie said she hopes both it and the QR code will become fully obsolete.

“The UPC barcode has done us well for 50 years,” she said. “I’m hoping that it’s not another 50 years before we’re talking about the next thing.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.