Will DataBar Kill The Self-Checkout Produce, Coupon Nightmare?

Written by Evan Schuman and Fred J. Aun
April 16th, 2009

Grocery chains have for years struggled with self-checkout systems that couldn’t easily deal with produce, POS stations that simply couldn’t handle complicated coupons and barcodes that didn’t understand expiration dates.

But in a move that many in retail IT see as the potentially biggest change in product labeling since the rollout of the UPC barcode 35 years ago, DataBar is looking to sharply increase its retail presence as of January. Among the chains most vocally advocating for the advance are American chains Wal-mart, Winn-Dixie and Krogers plus Canada’s Loblaw.

At its core, the DataBar codes are today’s barcodes but are much more tightly packed with much more information. “The UPC barcode has served retailers well, saving them more than a trillion dollars in its lifetime, but technology moves along,” said Jon Mellor, spokesman for GS1 US, the United States arm of the international standards body GS1.

Another GS1 official, senior director of industry development Stephen Arens, argued that some promotions today cannot be completely encoded in the UPC found on coupons. That forces cashiers to look at a customer’s order to validate whether the promotional products are included in the items purchased. They then have to key-in the discount amount.

The DataBar will theoretically eliminate all that and “really increase the opportunity for the cashier to just scan the coupon,” Arens said.

Consumers will also find it much easier, he said, to use self-checkout lanes for buying fruits and vegetables once the items are labeled with DataBar stickers and the kiosks are adjusted to read them. Instead of having to use a touchscreen to input a PLU number (that they often must look-up first), buyers will be able to scan produce just like they do with most other products.

DataBars attached to produce tell retailers not only the price and type of product but can also include the name of the vendor (Dole, Del-Monte, Chiquita, etc.), recommended freshness expiration data and other useful information. “Produce retailers will be able to get brand-specific information rather than commodity-level data,” Arens said. Mellor added that the DataBar approach will allow for easier labeling of more perishable products costing more than $100, while the current UPC variable weight system can only go to $99.99.

But not all of this transition will be akin to scanning sugar and spice. Most chains will have to absorb non-trivial costs to support the upgrades, a tricky move at a time of store closings and massive layoffs. Most product scanners built since 2000 are capable of reading DataBars but investments need to be made beyond just the scanners.

To get the advantages from the new codes, all kinds of middleware will also likely have to be upgraded. “It may be that it’s not in a company’s near-term budget or plans to upgrade its scanners, but doing so is just a matter of going through the process of having either the scanner suppliers, field engineers or retailers’ front-end staff and engineers activate the capability and make sure the software is ready to accept and process the data,” Arens said. Retailers are “‘getting product-specific sales information for detergents, pasta, refrigerated meats, dairy products,” Arens said. “All that information is flowing to buyers, space management systems and other places and it’s all driven by UPC data. Many of those same decision-support systems will be able to be used by the produce department now.”


3 Comments | Read Will DataBar Kill The Self-Checkout Produce, Coupon Nightmare?

  1. Bill Bittner Says:

    The DataBar (formerly RSS, Reduced Space Symbology) has been talked about for years. While scanners were the initial hurdle, the article rightly indicates that the software to handle the additional data has been the real challenge. POS Logs, Coupon Validation Routines, and cashier training must all change.

    While DataBar is necessary, it is not sufficient to address many of the issues identified in this article. Coupon acceptance at self checkout is as much a fraud issue as it is merely accepting outdated coupons. DataBar does nothing to ensure that the barcode being presented represents a legitimate offer from the manufacturer. This is normally done by the cashier looking at the printed coupon to make sure it was not produced on someone’s home computer. This is exactly the same issue with Internet coupons. DataBar represents a completely different concept of data presentation than RFID. DataBar presents the data attributes directly in the barcode. RFID uses a serial number to reference data attributes of an object. Implementing DataBar is not an intermediate step for getting to serial number based reference.

    DataBar will address the issues associated with PLU numbers and will enable more specific coding of variable weight packages. This will greatly help the management of fresh processes and be a great benefit to retailers who do in-store processing. These benefits will be tied to new applications that track both production and POS activity to monitor replenishment and identify unsold packages. This will help considerably with implementation of markdowns, rework planning, and shrink identification.

    All in all, DataBar is just one more enhancement to “analog based” interfaces such as printed paper coupons. The ultimate answer will be purely digital discounts verified online as they are presented to the retailer.

  2. Glyn Fogell Says:

    We see DataBar as a major step forward in the Fresh departments, particularly because of the ability to manage and validate sell-by dates at time of sale. Our major hurdle right now is the POS software but we should have the new version available in time for testing and roll-out before “sunrise”. Only a smallish number of hand scanners will have to be replaced as even our oldest omnidirectional ones can be given a new firmaware version to handle DataBar; we’re busy piloting that right now.

    On the coupon comment from Bill: I motivated a local GS1 standard change for coupons which has been adopted so that we can use a coupon as a linked promotional item. It has an effective date and an end date for the promotion, has no intrinsic face value and only works when the promoted item is in the same “basket”. Redemption is handled electronically based on scanned coupons and the paper need not be retained or handled by a clearing bureau – the supplier’s stock account is debited for redemptions at the end of the promotion. Yes, the voucher could be re-used, but only to buy more of the promoted product. (You did want to boost sales of the line, didn’t you?).

    Try it – you might like it!

  3. Rob Martell Says:

    It takes me so long to get through a grocery check-out now, I am not hoping for any more ‘Technology’ to make it worse!


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