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September 11, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

What the History of the Barcode Reminds Us About Introducing New Technology

September 11, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

What the History of the Barcode Reminds Us About Introducing New Technology


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

When we talk about technology here at Future of Field Service, we are usually looking forward. But a new book about old technology – The Barcode, by former IBM engineer Paul V. McEnroe – got me thinking about some important lessons from the past. 

Primarily, the fact that you never know exactly what kind of response you are going to get when you deploy a new technology, even one that seems to have some pretty obvious benefits.

McEnroe was one of the engineers who developed the UPC retail barcode – the one we still use today at most checkout counters. Other types of barcodes existed in the early late 1960s and early 1970s when McEnroe and his team began their work, but the UPC was specifically created to help retailers improve efficiency at the checkout counter and for inventory. The retail industry worked closely with IBM and cash register manufacturers to create a laser scanner/register combo that could communicate with a server in the back of the store using the available networking technology of the day.

After years of development and several live tests, the team was ready for a full-scale launch at a Giants supermarket in Virginia in 1974. McEnroe waited to hear word from his technician on site to find out how the launch had gone, but when the phone rang his colleague told him that the store couldn’t open.

Anyone who has been involved on a big technology installation knows that things can go wrong. But in this case, the problem wasn't technical. The store couldn't open because there were demonstrators picketing the store and telling customers not to enter – because the prices were no longer marked on grocery items.

What happened with the UPC rollout was a common mistake – the engineers had not done a good enough job of letting actual users know why they were deploying the technology, and how it would help them. In fact, not only did retailers get pushback from customers, but retail unions also objected to the new barcodes because they feared more automation would eliminate jobs. There were safety concerns about the lasers in the scanners, as well.

Within the first year of the roll out, popular talk show host Phil Donahue had railed against barcodes on TV, and there were eventually Congressional hearings about customer concerns.

McEnroe and the team at IBM, as well as retailers, had to go on the defensive and educate employees and consumers that the lack of price marks was actually a good thing. For the checkers, they could do their jobs faster. Customers also now had an itemized receipt that not only showed them what they paid, but exactly what each item had cost. There were tests conducted to prove the lasers were safe. 

Eventually, UPC codes made their way onto more goods, but the technology was not ubiquitous in retail until the late 1990s. One major retailer, Hobby Lobby, still doesn't use UPC codes at the register.

There are few lessons here for any big technology or digital transformation project:

  • Involve all the relevant stakeholders at the beginning of the project. The IBM team felt a bit sandbagged by the consumer backlash, because up until that point they had primarily been talking to retailers, packagers, and manufacturers about how to make the scanning system work. If they had involved customers and retail employees from the start, they would have been able to address those concerns earlier.
  • Communicate the why of the project. I have heard this from lots of guests on our podcast. Team members and customers want to know why you are deploying new technology, not just how it works. The UPC was meant to improve efficiency at the store, make life easier for staff, and improve service for customers. The developers should have been beating that drum from the start.
  • Be prepared to answer hard questions. Concerns about labor cuts were not entirely unfounded, and in the 1970s there was a lot of talk about replacing employees with what at the time seemed like sci-fi style machinery. Even if the IBM team could not anticipate that issue, the retailers involved should have seen it coming and had answers ready. 

Like a lot of new technologies, the UPC had ramifications beyond its original application. Barcoding revolutionized inventory management, and with the introduction of other types of barcodes, those benefits eventually spread throughout the supply chain. Barcodes play a key role in product recall efforts. Customers can scan barcodes with their phones in the store or at home to compare pricing or look up product information. 

The technology solutions that organizations are deploying in the field service space present those same types of opportunities – provided that companies communicate the benefits and address concerns for employees and customers alike.