Barcode Verifiers – What They Don’t Do

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A friend sent me an image of a UPC symbol that “did not scan right” (his words) at the local big box store. As a barcode quality guy, I’m always on the lookout for problem barcodes; friends and family are my best detectives. However, in this case “did not scan right” meant something different to my friend than it does to me. The UPC symbol “scans” (decodes) perfectly. My friend’s complaint was “…it rang up a price $2 higher than marked.”  Is that a barcode error? In the mind of a consumer it is—and in retail, the consumer’s opinion is the truth.Product Label

This is an important distinction, one that quality professionals often miss. And by “miss” I don’t mean there is a misunderstanding of what happened here. Rather there is a misunderstanding of the larger role that quality plays—that there is a much larger goal than just securing my personal perimeters and finding absolution when there is somebody else to blame when things go wrong.

The case in point: barcode verifiers would report that the UPC on this product performs flawlessly but the database lookup information is incorrect. The IT personnel failed to update the price on this item, or maybe misapplied the price adjustment to a different item—or perhaps the $2 off shelf tag was incorrect and it wasn’t a database lookup error  at all. However and wherever it happened, a mistake was made and a customer was inconvenienced.

How big a deal is this? It’s a matter of perspective. Personally I think occurrences like this make an otherwise machine-like precision life more interesting. The irony is delightful: the “systems” portion of the retail experience worked perfectly; the human portion failed. Books are written about such stuff: depressing, draconian books that predict the Borg-like future we face.

But from the retailer’s point of view such errors are concerning. Consumer loyalty is shaken by such errors. This might seem silly and overblown, but if I often experience a problem like this with a retailer, it would become more than tiresome. I arrived at checkout expecting to spend $X but the pricing is wrong. Now I am forced to make a quick decision: do I really want this product for $X additional? I would get wary about the other things that are going wrong that didn’t make themselves obvious: is pricing often wrong?  And the occasional checkout mishap concerns the retailer because of the disruption and expense to the front line. Think traffic jam—the fender-bender took 10 seconds to happen; the gapers made it into a 2 hour ordeal.  The collateral damage: people were late to birthday parties, lunch meetings, job interviews, theater tickets, court appearances, etc.

Some barcode verifiers have the ability to do product lookup as part of the ISO quality testing function. This would help a brand owner, a package or label printers make sure the barcode and the product are a match. But it would not guard against errors such as my friend encountered. This demonstrates the importance of testing barcodes in the IT and marketing departments, not for the purpose of testing the barcode itself but to test its look-up function.

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