The Evolution of The Barcode: Connecting Product Packaging to a Digital World

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On 26th June 1974, retail history was made with the scanning of the first-ever linear barcode – located on a multipack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum – at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, USA. 

The linear barcode started as a method to help supermarkets facilitate price look-up at the point of sale (POS) and has now become the common standard for commerce the world over, with global specifications managed by the international standards organisation GS1. 

A lot has changed since 1974, however, and while linear barcodes are still scanned more than 6 billion times every day, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of brands utilising additional barcode formats – including Data Matrix and QR codes – to fulfil wider business goals, driven by consumer, regulatory, and operational demand for more data.

As such, in this new data-focused world, there is now a requirement for a new standard that aims to help brands bring their product barcodes online, as Phil Archer, Director of Web Solutions at GS1, Paul Reid, Head of Standards and Consulting at GS1 UK, and Lee Metters, Group Business Development Director, Domino Printing Sciences explore.  

 

Increasing connectivity drives the need for a new type of barcode 

We are living in the era of big data, with brands increasingly expected to provide product information in an easy and accessible way – be this to consumers looking to find out more about a specific product or to retailers looking to optimise efficiency with access to accurate product data and supply chain information.

Many brands have responded to the demand for more data by adding secondary barcodes to their product packaging. A single pack might include a QR code for consumer-facing applications, alongside multiple other data carriers for use at POS, internal stock control, or supply chain operations management.

Consumers are now more adept at using 2D codes than ever before, due in part, to the normalisation of 2D scanning facilitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. QR codes are widely used in regional schemes to track the spread of the COVID-19, and in hospitality settings to allow consumers to view menus, or order products via their mobile phones.

However, when it comes to providing information on product packaging, having multiple 2D codes can still be confusing for consumers. It can also cause issues with scanning at POS systems and takes up valuable space on the packaging design.

With this in mind, GS1 is setting the gears in motion to help industry transition to a single, data-rich 2D code, which allows everything from warehouse machinery and POS scanners, to specialised apps and smart fridges to obtain information about a product. This single code could be used to improve supply chain visibility, ensure product safety, and bring a wealth of information to consumers, both at home and in-store.

Through the introduction of the GS1 Digital Link, the organisation is updating the GS1 system to work in this new data-focused world.

 

The internet in a barcode

GS1 Digital Link is a simple, standards-based structure for encoding information into 2D codes – effectively taking a barcode and embedding it on the end of a URL – which then allows that information to become part of the web.

Identifiers such as a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) – the number encoded in a linear barcode and used to identify a product at the checkout – are located within the 2D code and become gateways to a range of information about a product.

The GS1 Digital Link standard has been developed in collaboration with some of the world’s largest retailers, manufacturers, and transport and logistics firms, to – in essence – modernise the barcode in such a way that everyone can use it, and everyone can benefit.

 

What does a GS1 Digital Link look like? 

The GS1 Digital Link standard can be used with any type of 2D code. The 2D code is embedded with a GS1 Digital Link universal resource identifier (URI) – essentially a website URL with a product GTIN added to the end.

The 2D code can be scanned using an image-based scanner which will use the GS1 Digital Link URI to access information about the product. If the scanner is located at the POS, this can be done automatically using the GTIN in the same way as with a linear barcode; if the scanner is on a consumer’s smartphone this can be done by connecting the user to a brand-owned web page that provides specific brand-controlled product information.

Brands can then choose to add additional levels of granularity by including subsequent identifiers within the data string of the GS1 Digital Link URI – this could include a product’s batch and lot numbers, or, for serialised products, an individual item code or serial number.

This simple but profound change takes the industry from a simple way of conveying one number to a wealth of opportunity – allowing consumers, retailers, and anyone involved in the wider supply chain to access an array of instantly updatable, brand-controlled product information.

 

Migrating from linear barcodes to a single data-rich 2D code

The GS1 Digital Link standard provides a vision for a future where the linear barcode is replaced by a single, data-rich 2D code, which can be used by everyone to access information tailored to their particular needs.

However, some barriers currently stand in the way of moving over to a single barcode – specifically an enormous global retail infrastructure network that has been designed to work with linear barcodes.

For example, a 2D code requires an image-based scanner, but many current POS systems are only equipped to manage linear barcodes, a switch to image-based scanners, while likely in the coming years, will be gradual.

A 2020 report from GS1 US revealed that 82% of retailers and 92% of brand owners supported transitioning from the linear barcode to a 2D code within the next five years – for now, though, the GS1 Digital Link standard will provide a significant step forward in providing the majority of brands with an option for one 2D code, alongside a linear barcode.

 

The practicalities of deploying the GS1 Digital Link standard

When linear barcodes were first introduced in the 1970s, few could have anticipated just how important they would become. As a regional member of GS1 UK, Domino believes the same to be true of the GS1 Digital Link – in time, this will become a tool that will be adopted across all sectors, as product identification, automatic data capture, supply chain visibility, and the ability to share information become ever more important to global business operations.

However, as with any product code, a GS1 Digital Link-enabled barcode can only be effective if it is correctly printed. Having a suitable system in place to print 2D codes and check the quality and correctness of the printed code, is, therefore, crucial to ensure that brands can make the most of this standard.

For brands considering adding a GS1 Digital Link-enabled 2D code to their product packaging and seeking more information on how best to do this, it is important to work with a provider who can offer a range of globally compliant barcoding solutions, and specialist code verification systems, to suit the requirements for all industries and packaging types.

Further information on the GS1 Digital Link standard is available from the GS1 website: https://www.gs1.org/standards/gs1-digital-link