The GTIN – the Number Behind the Barcode – Was Developed 50 Years Ago and Transformed the Global Economy
Ewing, NJ, March 31, 2021 – Fifty years ago today, on March 31, 1971, leaders from the biggest names in commerce came together and transformed the global economy forever by developing the Global Trade Item Number (known as the “GTIN”) – also commonly called the Universal Product Code (U.P.C.). This numerical code uniquely identifies products and is the core of the barcode, the most important supply chain standard in history. Approximately three years later – on June 26, 1974 – a U.P.C. barcode was scanned for the first time on a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum at a Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. Today, the barcode is scanned over six billion times daily and remains one of the most trusted symbols in the world. It is present on more than 100 million products and used by 2 million companies globally.
“This is one of the great untold stories in the history of the modern economy. Half a century ago, fierce competitors came together, put aside their differences and remade global commerce for the better with the development of the GTIN, which in turn led directly to the creation of the barcode. As we celebrate this remarkable milestone, we call on businesses to collaborate once again to meet the needs of the 21st century economy by rapidly deploying and implementing new technologies, including data-rich, next-generation barcodes,” said Kathy Wengel, executive vice president & chief global supply chain officer of Johnson & Johnson and chair of the GS1 Management Board.
The 1971 historic meeting took place in New York City and included leaders from the biggest names in grocery, retail and consumer goods at the time, including H.J. Heinz Company, General Mills, Inc., The Kroger Company and Bristol Myers Company. The executives agreed to create a system to uniquely identify every single product, calling it the Global Trade Item Number, or GTIN. With great foresight, they believed that the GTIN could have a positive impact even beyond the grocery store – from warehouses to boardrooms – and would boost speed and efficiency of transactions and processes that could transform everything from supply chains to consumer experiences. They agreed at the meeting to continue to innovate together to create a system that would benefit businesses and consumers alike. Decades later, the BBC named the resulting outcome one of “the 50 things that made the world economy.”
“From the visionary meetings of the founders of GS1 to the first scan at Marsh Supermarket, the early 1970s were enormously exciting and challenging. I am honored to have been a part of something so beneficial to our world, seeing companies joining forces and allying for the common good. Now it is time for a new generation of industry leaders to come up with new forms of standards that will have the power to transform business for the next 50 years,” said Tom Brady, an engineer who developed and installed the scanner system used at Marsh Supermarket to scan the first barcode with GTIN in 1974.
GS1 Standards such as the GTIN embedded in the barcode symbol continue to help make the vast complexity of modern global business flow quickly, efficiently and securely, simplifying supply chain processes in almost every sector around the world. However, as consumers demand more and better product information, industry is collaborating to bring barcodes to the next level.
A 2020 GS1 US research study titled “Powering the Future of Retail” revealed that 82% of retailers and 92% of brand owners support transitioning from the U.P.C. to a data-rich two-dimensional (2D) barcode (e.g., QR Code, GS1 DataMatrix), digital watermark and/or RFID.
Developments towards these next-generation barcodes, which can hold vastly more information, will be used to empower consumers with trusted information and reshape global commerce for a new century. Their use, for example, can tell consumers if a product contains allergens, if it is organic and information on its carbon footprint. Ultimately, this gives consumers a greater level of trust and loyalty relating to the products they buy. These data carriers will also tell the supply chain, in machine-readable format, additional information about the product, like the batch/lot number and expiration date. Industry is prioritizing this effort and has aligned to have all products marked with a 2D barcode and retailers equipped to scan these new barcodes by 2027. To meet this date, GS1 US collaborated with industry to develop a GS1 US Advanced Data Carriers at Point-of-Sale Getting Started Guide.
GS1 US has also published a guideline to help the retail industry implement GS1 Digital Link, a standard that allows brands to web-enable barcodes and provide consumers with rich product information. With a single scan of a 2D barcode that’s encoded with GS1 Digital Link, consumers can gain access to unlimited instantly updated and brand-authorized content online. GS1 Digital Link embeds the GTIN in a 2D data carrier and connects the physical product to the web. The standard can help eliminate the need for multiple on-pack barcodes, freeing up space for brand expression and supporting industry’s need for a more robust data carrier.
“Our ultimate objective is to ensure transparency, satisfaction, safety and trust to our customers, our partners and our employees,” said Özgur Tort, CEO of Migros Ticaret a.ş. and co-chair of The Consumer Goods Forum. “Like our predecessors half a century ago, we as business leaders must come together now to develop standards that deliver even more useful and accurate product information. This type of collaboration and partnership can advance emerging technologies in ways that will benefit both businesses and consumers all over the world.”
For more information about GS1 US, visit www.gs1us.org.
About GS1 US
GS1 US®, a member of GS1 global, is a not-for-profit information standards organization that facilitates industry collaboration to help improve supply chain visibility and efficiency through the use of GS1 Standards, the most widely used supply chain standards system in the world. Nearly 300,000 businesses in 25 industries rely on GS1 US for trading partner collaboration that optimizes their supply chains, drives cost performance and revenue growth, while also enabling regulatory compliance. They achieve these benefits through solutions based on GS1 global unique numbering and identification systems, barcodes, Electronic Product Code (EPC)-based RFID, data synchronization and electronic information exchange. GS1 US also manages the United Nations Standard Products and Services Code® (UNSPSC®). For more information, please visit www.gs1us.org.
*In this publication, the letters “U.P.C.” are used solely as an abbreviation for the “Universal Product Code,” which is a product identification system. They do not refer to the UPC, which is a federally registered certification mark of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) to certify compliance with a Uniform Plumbing Code as authorized by IAPMO.