Bar code now lets newspapers track sales, circulation

Little black bar codes can be found on almost every consumer product from soup to soft drinks. Now, newspapers may be trying them, but for different reasons. The New York Times has added a version of the universal product code to the top of its Page 2. The code could save the newspaper a lot of money while allowing it to target its sales areas.

Every day thousands of newsstands return their unsold newspapers for a refund. Until last August, the only way the Times could monitor whether its returns were legitimate was through a written affidavit. But a newsstand operator at an airport, for example, could collect papers left on airplanes and include them in its returns -- getting money for papers it never paid for.

Using the bar code, which tells the day, month, and edition of the paper returned, the Times can ``gain control of our product,'' a Times marketing employee says. The airport newsstand could return only the national edition of the paper; local editions would be weeded out.

The code monitors circulation, too. Since the Times started printing the code in August in the national edition and in January in the local edition, it can see precisely where and what days of the week it is distributing too many or too few papers -- and adjust accordingly.

The technology isn't sophisticated enough for wide appeal, says Dick Parr, circulation manager at the Boston Globe. It's faster and cheaper to count the returns (which come in bundles of 25) by hand than by opening them to scan each paper individually. The Globe will probably use a code when papers can be scanned in bundles, Mr. Parr says, to check returns by day: More papers sell on Wednesdays, for example, because of food coupons.

Most magazines use bar codes, but more for inventory control than for tracking circulation. A wholesaler handles between 200 to 2,500 magazines a week, all priced differently. Unlike newspapers, magazines must be scanned individually, so the ``bundle'' technology isn't necessary. Also, the return rate for magazines is between 30 and 50 percent, says Parr, whereas the daily return for street copies of the Globe is more like 15 percent.

Given the relatively high price of magazines and higher return rate, a distributor needs a computer scanner to enter the different prices into bookkeeping automatically to keep track of so much information.

``You'd go broke'' entering magazine returns manually, says a spokesman at North Shore News, a newspaper and magazine wholesaler outside Boston.

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