Bar-Coding Individual Fruit
Bar-Coding in the Supermarket
I am going to present to you a very non-technical explanation of the background, current capabilities, and the direction the industry is moving towards bar-coding individual fruit. This will be followed by a brief question and answer period.
Why even bother to bar code? For that matter, why are we putting Price Lookup Unit (PLU) numbers on the fruit? The answer is, of course, customer service. Or to put in a slightly less positive perspective: if we don't, we can't sell to the large retailers.
Compared to the current PLU numbers, bar coding provides three additional benefits to the supermarkets:
- Improves the accuracy at check-out because checkers do not have to type in the PLU numbers.
- Provides information useful to category management decisions.
- Assists in determining source of product for food safety concerns (in conjunction with case coding).
Most of us can recognize a standard grocery bar code. It is in fact a Universal Product Code (UPC Version A) which encodes 12 digits of information and has been a part of the supermarket scene for the past 25 years. This code was developed by the Uniform Code Council (UCC) and is made available in the public domain.
The UPC is the standard for grocery point of sale (POS) scanning. The European numbering system uses a parallel code - the EAN (European Article Numbering). However, standard UPC/EANs are too large for most produce applications.
The Small Code Solution for 25 Years
As part of the UPC family, there is a smaller version of the UPC-A called the UPC-E. UPC-E was designed to reduce the space requirements of UPC-A. If sufficient zeros exist in the UPC-A, UPC-E encodes the 12 digits into 8 digits of information by suppressing the zeros. This code works only in a closed system environment (e.g., a grocery chain). If you buy a pack of chewing gum in the grocery store, it likely carries the UPC-E symbol. However, UPC-E is subject to certain limitations and was not designed for Global Supply Chain identification.
The EAN-8 code is an 8-digit zero-suppressed version of the EAN. Because the EAN is similar to the UPC, the same limitations exist for its use.
Locally Assigned Code/Retailer Assigned Number
Locally Assigned Codes or Retailer Assigned Numbers are unique numbers assigned to packers by retailers. Each retailer has 35,000 retailer assigned numbers to use, but since this system has been in existence for the past quarter of a century, most of their numbers have been utilized. And while this may fit the needs of a specific retailer and packer it would not fit into an Open Supply Chain Application as another retailer may not be able to use it.
Retail Zero Suppression Code
Retail Zero Suppression Codes are an additional 4,500 codes for each retailer made available for the "closed system environment." These are basically a different way of eliminating the zeros from the 12-digit UPC-A code and are very similar to the Locally Assigned Code above.
In either Locally Assigned Codes or the Retail Zero Suppression Codes, the check-out software replaces the suppressed zeros and places the item into the retailer's system as a 12-digit code compatible with their overall system.
While the UPC-E and EAN-8 codes can be scanned by existing front-end systems, they are not considered a long-term solution for produce bar coding because of the following:
- Insufficient numbers remain.
- They are not compatible across the entire numbering system.
- The physical codes are still large and will require larger labels.
- They were designed for fixed weight items (i.e., items whose price is fixed at say $.89 each).
Working on a Solution for Space Constrained Items
The two global organizations that administer and control the numbering methodology, the EAN and the UCC, have combined efforts and have developed a new family of symbology called Reduced Space Symbology (RSS).
The RSS is a family of 14-digit codes with several types of bar codes designed to integrate into the global numbering system and provide a one-world approach to item numbering.
This new family of codes includes both one- and two-dimensional symbols, but for integration into the existing retailer POS systems, it will very likely be the one-dimensional stacked omnidirectional code that will carry the information for produce.
These new linear symbologies will be used by the UCC/EAN to augment their existing capability. This new family of coding is in the public domain and will be used throughout the world.
In the future, RSS codes will be used in many applications within the global marketplace and made available to the public for their use. The UCC will continue to issue manufacturer numbers and will publish RSS Guidelines once finalized.
The RSS codes shown to the left are all one-dimensional. The RSS linear code can also be used in conjunction with a two-dimensional component and printed as a composite symbol. To avoid confusion, examples of composite symbols are not presented.
An RSS Candidate for Individual Produce Items
This new RSS code has several benefits to the supply chain:
- Carries a full of 14 digits of information
- Designed to be compatible with existing databases, which is more and more important as the retail consolidation continues around the world
- New coding algorithms are more robust and error-free, resulting in a higher rate of scan
- Smaller footprint means minimal increase in the label size and cost.
But, as this new code becomes available in the market, it will require retailers to upgrade their POS systems. Upgrading might entail both software and hardware, depending on the front-end systems being used.
The RSS-14 Stacked Omnidirectional Code appears to be a likely solution for the produce industry:
- Best fit on a label for its size
- Carries a full 14 digits of information, but RSS decoding not supported by retailers yet
- Requires a managed migration from the current PLU.
An Approximate Size Comparison
The examples below give you an idea of the relative difference in the sizing of the codes I have discussed. The coding of the symbols has been improved, as has the way in which the symbols can be reduced. While too technical to explain in the time allotted, the new RSS codes have the potential for a larger reduction from the standard size that the older UPC/EAN codes.
The Challenge - The Fruit Label
Other challenges need to be considered:
- While larger labels can contain a highly scannable code, they are difficult to use in labeling relatively small fruit (i.e., the label covers more of the produce).
- Consider the packing/labeling environment, which includes humid/wet/waxy conditions.
- With fruit running at up to over 600 pieces a minute, speed and accuracy of labeling are critical.
- How will the all these factors play into the point of delivery? Will retailers want a scan every time? What will it take to make this happen? Test standards are being designed to determine what the curvature of a piece of fruit does to the ability to read the bar code.
- Understanding how supermarket produce bags will affect the ability to read the codes.
- If all else fails, it is clear that the check-out clerk will still require an "eye readable" code to punch in similar to the way the PLUs are currently processed.
- And perhaps above all, scannability. One retail chain has charged $1000 per mis-scan at the checkout. On-line verification of the bar codes will likely become mandatory.
The Opportunity: An International PLU Code
Where do we as an industry go from here?
The produce industry is presently considering what specific information the new RSS code could contain. I am going to show what a potential new code could look like:
- This structure could utilize the established PLU codes as part of the identification structure.
- If a no scan occurs, the clerk could just enter the 4-digit PLU.
- The Produce Electronic Identification Board (PEIB) is working to establish a global coding structure; this could be expanded into the global marketplace meeting the needs of the ever expanding global retailers.
- Outside the United States, this would avoid any clashes with existing EAN-8 codes.
- It would contain the standard UCC Manufacturer Identification number.
For example, the code you see might describe Dole US as the packer of an Organic Small Red Delicious Apple from the Western United States.
Where to from Here?
Much work remains to be done in the RSS Produce User Groups:
- Technical and in-market trials are being scheduled for late 2000.
- Next meeting takes place in March 23rd, 2000 in Atlanta to discuss and finalize the information to be encoded in the new code structure.
- It is expected that the RSS-14 stacked omnidirectional code symbology will be released to the produce industry in its final working format by early 2001.
Contact the UCC or see me if you have comments or want to contribute to the industry initiative.
Sinclair Systems International
2605 Chester Kimm Rd.
Wenatchee, WA 98801
16th Annual Postharvest Conference, Yakima, WA
March 14-15, 2000