If you have bought shiny green Granny Smith apples or certain kinds of organic produce from bins in your local Loblaws store recently you were unwittingly in the front lines of a retail revolution.
Look closely next time and you will see a small round label with black bars stuck on those fruits or vegetables. It is a DataBar, the latest step forward in bar-code technology. Those small black stripes are tiny libraries of information.
When you reach the checkout counter, the cashier can now scan the item and the store's computer system does the rest. Currently the coded strips contain only the five-digit product number but plans are to expand that tiny warehouse of information to include best-before dates, names of suppliers and in fact almost anything the retailer finds useful.
Retailers hope advances such as DataBars mean customers will soon be their own checkout clerks. And when it comes to inventory control, look for clerks passing hand-held scanners over shelves and bins to get an accurate tally.
"It is an enormous step forward in the development of the bar code," says Mike Sadiwynk, senior vice-president global relations and chief standards officer for GS1 Canada, the Canadian branch of a global organization dedicated to improving logistics. "By 2010 DataBars will become a global standard."
That means that after 35 years of development the bar code will finally be small enough to be stuck on the sides of everything from lipstick to 100 grams of Angus beef from a deli counter.
"For consumers it means much greater speed passing through the checkout counter," he says. "No more [clerks]looking through product lists manually to find prices. They can all be scanned in seconds."
For retailers it opens the door to easy, inexpensive new ways to track inventory, determine which items from what suppliers sell best, prevent the sale to customers of items at or perilously close to best-before dates and to avoid cashier errors.
Those errors can be significant, some retailers say. While a standard field-grown tomato might look the same as an organic one, the price difference can be as much as 40 cents a pound. DataBars are smart enough to tell the difference.
"If there are apples or bananas or any fruits or vegetables from two or more suppliers in the same bin, the price per case of each might vary considerably," Mr. Sadiwynk says. "A quick scan of a DataBar lets the retailer know which is selling best."
Tree huggers can take comfort as well. The ability to replace much larger printed bar codes with the smaller DataBar may spark a revolution in packaging, he adds. No need for large, flat cardboard surfaces to hold traditional bar codes. Miniature DataBars can be stuck on any surface.
In fact, ubiquitous DataBars coupled with advances in cellphone technology may turn that BlackBerry in your pocket into a personal checkout counter.
"There is research under way now in Europe and Asia coupling cellphones and DataBars to make Internet-equipped phones [into]personal scanners," Mr. Sadiwynk says.