The Barcodes Are Coming!

Juan Caicedo

(Graphic by Matt Whitt)

As e‑commerce con­tin­ues to encroach on brick-and-mor­tar stores, with online sales mak­ing up 10.8% of all retail sales in 2019, sto­ries about Walmart’s new fleet of rov­ing robot jan­i­tors and Amazon’s cashier­less con­ve­nience stores stoke con­cerns that automa­tion is mak­ing retail jobs obso­lete. This specter of automa­tion has haunt­ed Amer­i­can retail work­ers for decades: In the 1990s, it was online shop­ping. In the 1980s, it was the self­ser­vice kiosk. And for a brief moment in the 1970s, it was the barcode.

In the March 2, 1977, edi­tion of In These Times, writer Antho­ny O. Miller described how con­sumers were not hap­py about a fledg­ling tech­nol­o­gy that was sup­posed to quick­ly iden­ti­fy any store item: the Uni­ver­sal Prod­uct Code, or UPC, com­mon­ly known today as the bar­code. Miller sum­ma­rized the scathing find­ings of a study com­mis­sioned by the retail industry:

Forty per­cent of shop­pers [had] dif­fi­cul­ty see­ing prices in scan­ner-stores, com­pared to 15 per­cent for con­ven­tion­al stores.”

Price errors made by shop­pers were sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er’ in [UPC] scan­ner-equipped stores.”

Shop­pers [at the check­out stand] in con­ven­tion­al stores [knew] the cor­rect prices 71 per­cent of the time, com­pared with 56 per­cent for shop­pers in scanner-stores.”

Forty-three per­cent of scan­ner­store shop­pers switched to anoth­er store, com­pared with 26 per­cent for the con­ven­tion­al store.”

Con­sumers weren’t alone in dis­lik­ing the new tech­nol­o­gy. From 1974 to 1982, labor orga­ni­za­tions (includ­ing the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union) were fight­ing for leg­is­la­tion to man­date indi­vid­u­al­ly marked prices on store items. Miller writes, Reac­tion to the report from orga­nized labor, which has opposed UPCs as a threat to jobs, was enthusiastic.”

Even retail­ers who adopt­ed bar­codes in the mid-1970s were skep­ti­cal, doing so only with the hope that it would, even­tu­al­ly, be cost-effec­tive. By 1977 it seemed that dig­i­tal price scan­ning was a dead end; the year pri­or, Busi­ness Week had run an arti­cle titled, The Super­mar­ket Scan­ner That Failed.”

Bar­codes didn’t fail, of course. Through the 1980s, improve­ments to scan­ners made them ubiq­ui­tous. Nor did the spread of bar­codes result in any mea­sur­able retail job loss. The bar­code did, how­ev­er, serve to mas­sive­ly expand the capac­i­ty of retail man­age­ment to sur­veil and ana­lyze work­er behav­ior — like the num­ber of items scanned per sec­ond — which can be used to decide who gets fired. In April 2019, inter­nal doc­u­ments revealed Ama­zon had devel­oped a dig­i­tal track­ing sys­tem that can auto­mat­i­cal­ly fire employ­ees who aren’t hit­ting pro­duc­tion targets.

Data from the scan­ners also helped busi­ness­es track con­sumer behav­ior, under­pin­ning the cre­ation of the con­sumer data­bas­es that now track and col­lect even more infor­ma­tion. The analy­sis of that con­sumer and work­er data pro­vides com­pa­nies with new oppor­tu­ni­ties for prof­it. Most free” online ser­vices are, essen­tial­ly, mech­a­nisms to track users and prof­it from their data.

Maybe we were right to be worried.

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