On June 26, 1974, a significant moment in retail history occurred with the scanning of the first linear barcode on a multipack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, USA.

Originally designed to aid supermarkets in price look-up at the point of sale (POS), the linear barcode has evolved into the global standard for commerce, managed by the international standards organization GS1.

However, the landscape has transformed since 1974, and while linear barcodes are still scanned over 6 billion times daily, there has been a notable surge in brands adopting additional barcode formats, such as Data Matrix and QR codes, to meet broader business objectives.

In this blog post, we engage in a conversation with Phil Archer, Director of Web Solutions at GS1, and Paul Reid, Head of Standards and Consulting at GS1 UK, to explore GS1 Digital Link, a new standard designed to assist brands in bringing their product barcodes online.

Increasing connectivity drives the need for a new type of barcode

In the age of big data, there is a growing expectation for brands to offer easily accessible product information, catering to both consumers seeking details about specific products and retailers aiming to optimize efficiency through accurate product data and supply chain information.

According to Archer, “As a consumer or a retailer, the idea that you don’t know something or can’t find something out is old-fashioned. If I’m confronted with a product and I want to find out where it came from, or what it’s made of, or how it compares with something else, I expect to be able to find out.”

To meet the demand for more data, many brands have incorporated secondary barcodes on their product packaging. A single pack might feature a QR code for consumer-facing applications, along with various other data carriers (linear barcodes, 2D codes, NFC, and RFID tags) for use in POS, internal stock control, or supply chain operations management.

However, the use of multiple barcodes can lead to confusion for consumers, create scanning issues at POS systems, and consume valuable space on packaging designs. In response, GS1 is working to transition the industry toward a single, data-rich 2D code. This code would enable warehouse machinery, POS scanners, specialized apps, and smart fridges to access comprehensive product information. A unified code has the potential to enhance supply chain visibility, ensure product safety, and provide a wealth of information to consumers, both at home and in-store.

Archer emphasizes the need for an update, stating, “The linear barcode has survived a remarkable length of time, but now we have to do more. We have to update the GS1 system to work in this new data-focused world – this is the aim of the QR Code Powered by GS1.”

What is the QR Code Powered by GS1?

According to Archer, the straightforward answer is, “It’s the internet.” He explains, “All we are doing is taking a barcode and sticking it on the end of a URL – it’s that simple.”

QR Code Powered by GS1 is a straightforward, standards-based framework for encoding information into 2D codes, enabling that information to be part of the web. This approach allows consumers, retailers, and participants in the broader supply chain to access a variety of instantly updatable, brand-controlled product information.

With QR Code Powered by GS1, identifiers, such as a GTIN (Global Trade Item Number – the same number encoded in a linear barcode to identify a product at the checkout), are embedded within a barcode. These identifiers serve as gateways to a wealth of information about a product.

Paul Reid emphasizes the goal of modernizing the barcode in an inclusive manner, stating, “This is about modernising the barcode and doing it in such a way that everyone can play, and everyone can benefit. We have developed the QR Code Powered by GS1 standard, in collaboration with some of the world’s largest retailers, manufacturers, and transport and logistics firms, so that everyone can use it.”

What does QR Code Powered by GS1 look like?

The QR Code Powered by GS1 standard is compatible with any form of 2D code. The 2D code incorporates a QR Code Powered by GS1 ‘URI,’ which is essentially a website URL with a product GTIN appended to the end.

GS1 Digital Link example

The 2D code can be read by an image-based scanner, which utilizes the QR Code Powered by GS1 URI to retrieve details about the product. If the scanner is at the point of sale (POS), this process can be automated by using the GTIN in a manner similar to a linear barcode. If the scanner is on a consumer’s smartphone, it can link the user to a brand-owned webpage offering specific product information controlled by the brand.

Brands have the option to enhance granularity by incorporating additional identifiers within the data string of the QR Code Powered by GS1 URI. This might involve including a product’s batch and lot numbers or, for serialized items, an individual item code or serial number.

 GS1 Digital Link detailed example

The standard enables real-time updates of product information. For instance, in a product recall situation, landing pages can be promptly adjusted to notify anyone scanning a code.

Moreover, the standard facilitates the establishment of rules that apps and scanners can follow to engage in specific user experiences. Essentially, apps can be designed to comprehend the QR Code Powered by GS1 standard, using additional barcode data to access specific information.

In a medical context, for instance, where a patient needs information about a medical product in a particular language, apps can be created to read a product barcode and guide the patient to information presented in their preferred language.

“It’s a simple yet significant shift,” notes Archer. “It takes us from a straightforward method of conveying a single number to a versatile tool, offering consumers, retailers, and all participants in the broader supply chain access to a variety of instantly updatable, brand-controlled product information.”

Transitioning commerce to a single data-rich 2D code

The QR Code Powered by GS1 standard envisions a future where the linear barcode is replaced by a singular, data-rich 2D code, catering to everyone’s specific informational needs.

However, transitioning to a single barcode faces obstacles due to the existing global retail infrastructure tailored for linear barcodes. According to Reid, “For a 2D code, you need an image-based scanner, but many current POS systems are only equipped to manage linear barcodes.” This means a QR Code Powered by GS1-enabled 2D code can perform all functions except the traditional ‘beep’ at the checkout.

A GS1 US report revealed that 82% of retailers and 92% of brand owners support transitioning to a 2D code within the next five years. Despite this, a synchronized switch from linear to 2D is unlikely to happen soon. Reid adds, “We can’t say exactly when this will be. For now, the QR Code Powered by GS1 standard will provide the majority of brands with an option for one 2D code alongside a linear barcode, which is a significant step forward.”

Are you interested in using the QR Code Powered by GS1 standard?

Back in the 1970s, the significance of linear barcodes was underestimated. Similarly, we anticipate the QR Code Powered by GS1 will evolve into a universally adopted tool across various sectors. With product identification, automatic data capture, supply chain visibility, and information sharing becoming increasingly vital for global business operations, the QR Code Powered by GS1 is poised for widespread adoption.

However, the effectiveness of a QR Code Powered by GS1-enabled barcode depends on accurate printing. Employing a suitable system for printing 2D codes and verifying the quality and correctness of the printed code is crucial. If you’re contemplating incorporating a QR Code Powered by GS1-enabled 2D code in your product packaging and seek guidance, feel free to reach out. As a regional member of GS1 UK, Domino takes pride in offering globally compliant barcoding solutions and specialized code verification systems tailored to diverse industries and packaging types.

Further information on the QR Code Powered by GS1 standard is available from the GS1 website: https://www.gs1.org/standards/gs1-digital-link

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