Check-Out Scanners and UPCs (Feb, 1978)

Apparently in 1978 time didn’t consider gypped to be an ethnic slur.

Checking Out Tomorrow

Americans spend more than $153 billion a year on food and other purchases in supermarkets and grocery stores, and have an abiding suspicion that they are getting gypped at the check-out counter. Their mistrust should be considerably allayed, and the waiting lines shortened, by the ever growing number of computers that are taking over the tally.

At a computer-equipped check-out line, all the clerk has to do is pass each item over a Cyclopean eye linked to a cash register and a scale. In a twinkling, the eye “reads” the striped UPC (Universal Product Code) symbol, by which the computer system identities the product, brand name and other pertinent information about the item. (The store manager can program into the computer price changes for specials or daily fluctuations.) Then the computer prints out both the name of the item (say, one 4-oz. can of sliced French beans) and the price on the receipt list.

The miracle-chip brain of the check-out computer is amazingly versatile. If, for example, a customer buys two cans of tomato soup priced at two for 49c. the computer will charge 25c for the first can that crosses the eye. Then, no matter how many different items have been handled in between, when the second can passes across the eye, the computer—remembering the first—will charge only 24c for it.

If an item is not code-marked, or if the clerk mistakenly positions it so that the marking is on the upper surface (and thus invisible to the scanning eye), the computer signals that it has not charged for that merchandise; it will then be added manually to the bill by the check-out clerk. In handling produce that must be weighed, the computer reads the code on the plastic bag containing, say, a half-dozen Delicious apples, but delays ringing up the charge until the bag has been placed on the computer-connected check-out scale. Then, programmed with the price per lb., it calculates and prints out the cost, this largely eliminates the time-consuming process of clerkly computation.

Unbeknown to the shopper, the check-out computer also logs each outgoing item against inventory in the store or a centralized warehouse, warning the manager when he must reorder and thus greatly reducing the frequency of the “Sorry, we’re sold out” dirge. Obviously, the consumer benefits from computerized marketing. So does the store. Since supermarkets operate on a profit margin of about 2% or less, the savings can be crucial.

Though the purchase price for a sophisticated eight-lane check-out system can be more than $110,000, some 200 systems are already operating in supermarkets around the nation. Some chains are, well, waiting in line for them. In time, chips in check-out counters will be as much a supermarket staple as the crunchy kind that comes in bags and tins.

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