End of the line for barcodes – The Sunday Times article
The barcode is so integral to daily life that it is scanned ten billion times a day, more times than Google’s search engine is used.

But the familiar black lines are likely to be replaced by the QR code at main supermarkets within five years, according to GS1, the not-for-profit regulator behind most of the world’s barcodes.
A dual-purpose QR code is being developed that can be scanned at the checkout, but also by shoppers on their smartphones, if they want to learn more about the ingredients, potential allergens, expiry date, product recalls, and how to recycle it.

Sarah Atkins, membership director at GS1, said: “This is as significant — if not more significant — than when we first introduced the barcode. The potential for the transformation in the way we shop is massive.”

With increasing labelling demands on retailers, such as making clear what allergens a product contains, shoppers now need 20-20 vision to decipher the tiny but crucial writing on the backs of packets.

In the future, shoppers will be able to scan a jar of sauce and be taken to a screen with a series of icons that can tell them detailed information about every ingredient, including the farm the meat is from, nutritional information and the carbon footprint.
It could also tell customers how to recycle the product, based on their location and local recycling rules, or alert them at the till if they are about to be sold something nearing its expiry date.

The new-style QR code has already replaced the barcode at some overseas retailers, including on hundreds of items in Australia’s Woolworths and 7-Eleven stores in Thailand, as well as in Germany and Brazil.

In the UK, a pilot scheme involving 50 small brands is being run that will enable customers to scan a QR code on certain products in retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s. The QR code cannot yet be scanned at the till in lieu of a barcode, because UK retailers will first have to undertake a significant software update.

While the barcode has served us well, celebrating its 50th birthday in April, it is easy to see why the QR code is now king. A conventional barcode stores 13 digits, but a QR code is a more complex pattern of black and white squares that can be read up and down as well as left to right, and can contain 4,000 characters.

The QR code can also work in a smaller size than a barcode. While GS1’s minimum size for a standard barcode is 29.83mm wide by 18.28mm high, the minimum size for one of the new QR code squares is 14.56mm by 14.56mm.

Jux, a Cambridge-based business that sells herbs and spices as well as dried vegetables such as broccoli powder, is among those trialling the GS1 QR code on its packets. When you scan a pot, it offers icons such as nutrition, “about us” and recipes.

The founder, Anna Wood, 32, said: “There is a lot of information for us to convey about the business that we can now put in the QR code instead of on the label. We can put a picture of the farm where that particular product is grown, for example, and include recipes for each product.”

The QR is seen as more reliable than the barcode, because it will still scan even if up to 30 per cent of it has been damaged.

It is a remarkable change in fortunes for the QR code, which flopped when it first appeared in UK marketing campaigns in the 2010s, because many people’s mobile phones were not ready for them. However, the square was revived during the Covid-19 pandemic when restaurants used them instead of physical menus, and vaccine sites used them for appointment sign-ins.

The QR code was created in 1994 by Masahiro Hara at the Japanese technology company Denso Wave, after he was inspired by a lunchtime game of Go, an ancient Chinese game played with black and white stones on a lined grid, usually 19×19.

The invention of the barcode was equally as serendipitous. The inventor Joe Woodland drew morse code dots and dashes in the sand on a Miami beach in 1949 while trying to develop a code that could be printed on groceries and scanned so supermarket checkout queues would move faster. He pulled them downwards with his fingers to produce thin lines from the dots and thicker lines from the dashes. By 1973 retailers had agreed on an industry-wide barcode.

It seems the end of the barcode itself, though, is now written in the sand.

The Sunday Star Times (UK) - Louise Eccles