Near despair drove the creation of the Universal Product Code (UPC) now more familiarly known as the bar code 25 years ago. Net margins for grocery stores were sorely sagging, so a group of usually uncooperative supermarket executives joined forces with a few food manufacturers to come up with a system to automate checkout stands. In addition to cutting the time that clerks spent ringing up items, the executives hoped to further boost profits by eliminating price labeling. The UPC has transformed mass retail worldwide. The little symbol has enabled retailers to create a formidable data base with all kinds of information about customers and their buying habits. The bar code has increased efficiencies in production and inventory control, and it has spun off a multitude of other codes and computerized identification systems in which human blood, overnight packages, dry cleaning, university students, antidepressants and endangered animals can all be identified by a laser-driven scanner.
The grocery store of the future might become even more automated thanks to the UPC. The Sunbelt supermarket chain Winn-Dixie has installed self-checkout lanes in its stores in several states. They allow customers to scan their own groceries, perhaps saving up to 40 hours of paid labor a week per checkout stand. A security module prevents cheating. Says a Winn-Dixie spokesman: "If you scan in a lemon and switch it for a T-bone steak, it'll know."