The humble barcode turns 50

Continuing to optimise supermarket stock efficiency including the COVID-19 era online shopping boom, and economic transformation.


How it all began

The humble ‘beep’ of a scanner on a GS1 barcode is now so embedded in the social milieu that we don’t often reflect on how it came to be ubiquitous (or indeed who made it happen). The story of how 50 years ago fierce supermarket competitors got together, adopted digital tools and transformed the global economy has not often been told. 

Back in 1971 when a powerful group of business leaders agreed on the first standards, that have long since become embedded in the global economy. And NZ was one of the earliest adopters of scanning globally – and remarkably done without the conflict, fear and industrial strife that bedevilled other countries. Thanks to a remarkable partnership between government agencies, business interests including our supermarkets and consumers. 

So what’s next?

COVID-19 and the next generation of digital tools are transforming the global economy again. Two trends are now very clear:

1. Product supply chains are going to be made far more resilient to avoid the kind of disruptions experienced over the past 12 months, and all the knock-on effects in national economies.

New Zealand: Retail stores had product outages through last year and shortages of items saw prices shoot up, in consequence of global shipping bottlenecks and delays, we saw ships queuing for access to Auckland Port at times, and the volume of containers handed at the border nationwide fell 7% in 2020.

2. More and more businesses of every kind are going to shift online with the inevitable outgrowth of:

  • Consumers becoming even more fervent in their preference to shop online for convenience and to avoid the threats and hassles of physical crowds.
  • People in every type of organisation working remotely, be that from home or other out of office environment. 
  • Companies redesigning themselves to cut cost and function through periods of social lockdown.  

New Zealand: NZ Post research showed a 30% jump in Kiwis’ online purchasing over the year to last August – and NZ Post expects that trend to continue with online grocery shopping in particular the “new normal” for much of the country.

Obviously these two trends are driven by advances in digital technology.  We are making even more use of computers, whether these are on our desktops, in our smartphones, in the backrooms of major corporates, or out there in the Cloud – of course this was already happening before COVID-19 arrived.

Now there is a transformational advance occurring in digital technology in two areas:

  • A drive to step up the interoperability of computers and information systems – their ability to talk to each other – to enable supply chain visibility, and,
  • Peoples’ desire and expectation to use digital technologies, especially their smartphones, to ask questions and find information.

The arrival of COVID-19 and its shock to how we all live, work, and engage in the modern economy is rapidly accelerating the use of a new generation of digital tools that can:

  • Link people more closely with physical goods and services, and, 
  • Form new and vastly expanded links between systems for data capture, storage, and exchange across the world. 

How are GS1 and the barcode responding?

Digital Link tool

In essence, rather than barcodes being simply for business-to-business purposes, consumers and patients will be able to use 2D barcodes (such as the QR Codes used in COVID Tracing or those used on healthcare items now) to access standardised, structured information on the web- product ingredients, use-by dates, expert reviews and so on.  And, because the scanning device is your mobile phone, the information can be automatically context sensitive (e.g. directions for use for medicines available in automatically in the language you have set on your cell phone – a ‘digital label’).

Digital Link has been developed by the global GS1 supply chain management organisation, in collaboration with some of the world’s biggest retailers and manufacturers, and transport and logistics firms.

All that leads to more informed and efficient shopping decisions, and promotes consumer safety and satisfaction.

All of this builds on a first generation of digital tools; the humble barcode – standards for identification and data formatting, and scannable barcodes.  


Dr Peter Stevens
Chief Executive
GS1 New Zealand