It's been almost a decade since their debut, when they were heralded as the biggest advance in shopping since supermarkets opened. Walk into your pantry, or open your grocery storage cupboard, and pick up anything there -- a box of cornmeal or a can of soup, a spice container or a loaf of bread -- somewhere on the package the block of thin and thick lines is likely to appear.
Those lines, representing the name and price of the item, so far only affect the lives of a very small percentage of Americans, usually those in heavily populated, urban areas The supermarket industry would like to see that change. According to their figures, this would mean a large savings for both consumers and the industry.
In the Washington, D.C. area -- where code scanners are already a way of life -- two supermarket chains, Giant Food Inc. and Safeway Stores Inc., serve grocery shoppers.
Two years ago Giant became the first chain in the world to convert all of its stores to the code-scanner system, although some had the system as early as 1975 . Company officials point to that fact as the underlying reason for their lead in the Washington-area supermarket competition. It hasn't hurt financially. At the end of fiscal 1982, Giant's working capital was around $39 million.
Both Giant and Safeway wage aggressive advertising campaigns featuring weekly specials in Washington-area newspapers. Comparison pricing in the store is further enhanced by prominent price labels on the shelves.
Those labels are important. There are no price stickers on the items. The clerk runs the item, code side down, over a plexiglass window at the checkout counter. Then a miraculous thing happens.
In less time than it takes to say Corn Flakes, a computer-assisted price and inventory scanner reads the codes, displays the name of the item and the price in glowing red letters on a display window above the cash register, and prints name and price on a register tape.
Applicable taxes are added, the total is displayed, and the method payment and change is figured. It's fast, seemingly foolproof, and store management loves it. But how about the consumer?
What if that product code registers more than the shelf price? At the Giant store in McLean, Va. a huge plant with over a dozen checkouts a printed notice informs shoppers that Giant will give them a second item free, if the register price proves to be more than the posted shelf price. Can the shopper later compare his or her purchases with the tape? Consider an actual tape of purchases bought at Giant.
The comuter is limited to 12 charactes (plus a price-per-pound reading), so intriguing abbreviations show up: "H-STYLE BRED" is obviously Home Style Bread, but it takes a few seconds to realize that "GT UNS GRPFT" is Giant Unsweetened Grapefruit Juice. "FA SPAGO MBL" is a stumbler until a can of Franco-American Spaghettios with Meatballs emerges from the bag. When the shopper finally identifies the item on the tape, can he or she remember the shelf price? Was the can of peas 49 cents or 47 cents? The shopper must remember, or trust the computer. Some consumers solve the problem by carrying pocket calculators.
In the Washington area, consumers seemingly have taken to the computer age readily. The supermarkets plan greater use of the system in the future.
The computer is seen as the tool of the century by the supermarket owners. A handheld computer has already been tested by the Safeway chain as an aid to inventory control and recording.
All an operator has to do is pass a wand over the codes attached to the shelves and punch a reorder button to place the order. Another minicomputer is planned for the receiving dock. This would allow an employee to simply run a wand over the codes on incoming goods, and the item and amount would be checked against the invoice in the central computer automatically.
From the checkout counter to warehouse management, the age of computer has arrived in the big grocery business. There's a good reason. According to one estimate, the food distribution industry could save $300 million annually, if only half the industry's reordering were done by computer. Those savings should show up at the checkout counter and ultimately in shoppers' pocketbooks.