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UPC update: shaping up the symbol.

There's no question that scanning can be a valuable tool for improving retailer productivity. And now that companies are dicovering the soft benefits of scanning, such as product-movement tracking and computer-assisted ordering, its role is increasing in importance.

Five years ago, barely 200 supers utilized scanning; today, more than 11,000 stores have adopted it. More than one-third of all supermarket purchases now cross a scanner, but each time a UPC code can't be read, and must be rescanned or manually keyed into the register, it creates a barrier to scanning productivity.

New Jersey-based Pathmark, owned by Supermarkets General Corporation, has begun a crusade against manufacturer abuse of UPC symbols, and is encouraging other chains to follow suit. Major chains such as Ralphs, Jewel, Kroger and Safeway are following Pathmark's lead. The bottom line is: If manufacturers refuse to improve poor UPC codes on their products, these chains may refuse to cary the products.

No Small Problem

Jo Ann Giambra, manager of multistore support systems for Pathmark, explains: "We had reached the point where we had 15% rescan. That means every time a cashier scans the item, she has to rescan it because the product doesn't scan well or because the symbol is so small that she has a problem with it. We decided something had to be done if we were going to do what we were supposed to do with this system."

Since the chain is scanning at 128 of its 132 stores, this is no small problem. Pathmark estimates that if there were no rescans, it could improve productivity by more than 7.5%. Other major chains, such as Ralphs--with 100% of its 118 stores scanning--and Jewel, are realizing similar productivity losses from poor UPC symbols. Jeel claims that UPC abuse cost the chain $2.5 million last year.

Pathmark estimates that rescanning of a product takes approximately thre seconds. On an annual basis, that adds up to $15,000 in labor for one of its stores and a total of about $2 million in labor for the company. This is simply measuring front-end productivity loss. In addition, each time the cashier gives up after three tries, and keys in only the price of the item, valuable product information is lost.

Rescans also discourage customer confidence in scanning and that eventually translates into lost sales. "If you shop in a scanning supermarket," explains Giambra, "and an item scans, you assume that the item registered toward your total. If you see the cashier doing it again, you may wonder, 'Am I getting charged for this twice?' 'Why is this happening? Also, 'Why is this so slow?'"

In its study of UPC symbol abuse, Pathmark asked a test panel of cashiers to

select two 50-item orders. One order consisted of a mixture of products with good UPC symbols. The other comparable order was made up of products with problem symbols. The good mixed order was processed quickly by the cashier. It took 39 seconds with only four rescans on products with flexible packaging. It took the cashier 256 seconds to finish the second order to poor symbols. Ultimately, 25 items had to be rescanned for a total of 90 rescans. The chain claims that approximately 15% of scannable items cannot be scanned at a single pass and many cannot be scanned even after three passes.

Pathmark then went into its stores and inspected every item on its shelves, basing its evaluation on existing published UPC guidelines. It started with grocery and moved on to produce and non-foods. Since HBA represents heavy product movement and high-value items, Pathmark is particularly concerned by this.

The chain evaluated a total of 12,000 supermarket items according to movement. It concentrated efforts first on high-moving items and then continued down the line. The report was also produced by vendor, so the chain is able to notify manufacturers about problems and meet with them on suggestions for improvements.

Pathmark found fair-to-poor symbol location on 34% of the items. Truncated UPCs--symbols with the bar height shortened--were detected on 27% of all items. Nine percent had vertical bars on cylindrical containers running the least preferable way, and 3% used poor color contrast. Many products had multiple combinations of these abuses.

Location of the symbol on the package is the most prevalent problem, says Pathmark. According to the Universal roduct Code guidelines for boxes, the UPC should appear in the right-hand corner. On bottles and cans, it should be as low to the bottom as possible and the lines should run horizontal to the bottom of the package to avoid wrapping around the cylinder. The cashier should be able to grip the item at the top as it would be placed on the belt, bring it over the scanner, and bag it--all in one step.

"Every time a cashier has to pick up an item and look at it to find that symbol," says Giambra, "we've lost time and productivity on the front end. And every time she tries to scan it, thinking that it's where we said it would be--and it isn't--it produces a rescan."

Thou Shalt Not Truncate

Even though no truncation is permitted by the UPC Symbol Specification Manual, truncation is a prevalent problem. Manufacturers have taken the license to truncate their UPC symbols so they will fit more easily on their packages and cause the least interference with their package design. Working under the mis-conception that it won't make a difference, they merely slice off a percentage of the symbol. But, says Giambra, "For every 10% of truncation, there's a 10% chance of rescan on the item. If a symbol has a 50% truncation, it has a 50% chance of not scanning on the first try."

Pathmark measured each UPC symbol to detrmine whether it had been truncated. Truncation was most widespread on HBA items. In fact, Pathmark found truncated symbols on one-third of the more than 4,000 HBA items it evaluated. Of course, in many cases, manufacturers are working with small items, and legal requirements must often be fulfilled with special directions and warnings. However, some manufacturers are working around those restrictions.

Procter & Gamble is redesigning the product packaging on any of its items that do not conform to the code. Says Jack Byler, corporate UPC coordinator, "On small packages, there's a lot of legal copy that has to be in print, but if you work with it long enough, you should be able to print the symbol at a minimum of 80% magnification--which is a vialbe option--but not truncate it. In our case, we've gone back and redesigned the labels and, in some cases, have removed ad copy to make room for the symbol. In fact, most of our labels will be printed at 100% magnification. We will not use 80% or 90% unless we have to, and we will not truncate."

One way the Pathmark suggests manufacturers can keep the symbol small while avoiding truncation, is by using a zero-suppressed symbol, a six-digit version of the original 10-digit UPC number.

"A zero-suppressed symbol scans better than a 10-digit symbol, because the scanner has fewer lines that can be mis-read," says Giambra. Most major manufacturers who received their UPC numbers early have the ability to zero suppress their symbols, but many do not make use of this opportunity.

Color contrast and screening on plastic packaging also create problems. Of course, package design and product image are of great importance to manufacturers. "But," says Giambra, "you have to have a good contrast in color between the lines and the backgrund, or you take the chance that the product won't scan." In its recently installed quarterly scanning audit, Ralphs has also found color contrast to be a difficulty. "Item for item," reports Andy Small, district manager, "I'd say our greatest percentage of problems comes from soft drinks, and it usually is a color contrast problem."

"Manufacturers should avoid pastels and combinations that won't give good color contrast," advises Giambra. "the best symbol is black on whie. Blue on white is also good, as is black on red."

Seeing Red

However, red on white or any pale background, or the reverse combination, is the worst color choice for a UPC symbol. "The lines can't be read," explains Giambra. "When the laser--which is red--reflects back up onto the scanner or back up onto the product, red reads as white. So if you've got red lines on a white background, you've seeing nothing. It's OK if you used red as your background and black for your lines."

Cellophane wrapping, used more often now as a defense against product tampering, can also create scanning problems. If the cellophane is too loose or crinkly, it produces a reflection that interferes with the laser's scan. Also, companies should not lose sight of where the symbol is placed in relationship to folds and seams. These can cover up the UPC, again distoring the clarity of the symbol.

With flexible plastic packaging, Pathmark recommends that manufacturers place the symbol at least 1 to 2 inches above the bottom corners. Thus, when the cashier grips the item to create a flat surface, the UPC can be easily scanned.

These are some of the most prevalent problems found with UPC symbols. The Uniform Product Code Council also reports other causs of scanning problems from its Information Interchange, a communication channel through which retailers can report UPC problems. These include assignment of more than one UPC number to the same product; assignment of the same number to two products; printing a symbol which is different from the UPC number; and incorrect number system character, or none at all.

A tool-free telephone number (800-543-8137) is staffed to receive calls. The information reported is immediately sent to the manufacturer of the product. According to the Council, the problem reports are generally well received by manufacturers and result in corrective action. "Maintaining integrity of the UPC code and symbol is the ongoing responsibility of everyone involved," says Hal Juckett, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Council. "Quality starts with understanding the UPC guidelines. If retailers need help, the UPC staff is available to assist them."

Pathmark also reports that manufacturer response, for the ost part, has been positive. Other chains actively notifying manufacturers say they, too, have received affirmative manufacturer reactions.

Taking Action

Procter & Gamble, for example, has already begun to react. "We are assuring our customers," says UPC Coordinator Byler, "that our products will scan 100% of the tme on the first pass at the checkout counter. We've identified those brands that need some correction. We're making those corrections and, by April, we'll be in poduction with all of them.

"Also, we're re-emphasizing and reimplementing a training program so that all our art and package design people will be able to recognize a UPC symbol that isn't printed according to specifications.

"Our goal at P&G is to produce packages that will scan 100% of the time on the first pass. We know we can do it."

Another major manufacturer on the West Coast claims it will be in compliance within five to six months. "We've been involved with UPC symbols for a decade," explains the company's UPC coordinator, "and we did extensive work initially. Then we didn't get any complaints for 10 years. Sudenly, we started getting complaints because we were out of spec and we didn't know it. There's no question that the retailers are right. And it's certainly worth the effort for us to rectify the situation. It's our understanding that, if we don't show progress in terms of complying, there's a posibility that our packags won't be on the shelf if they don't scan. That, to us, is very serious."

The major reasons companies cite for UPC abuse are: 1) "Nobody ever complained before"; 2) "The UPC interferes with the label or the package design"; and 3) "It scans for us."

"A lot of companies," says Pathmark's Gimabra, "say that they have a scanner set up so that it scans the product as it goes down the line and they tell us, 'Well, it scans for us.' Sure, it scans under optimum conditions. But they're not taking into account that a belt in a supermarket is not the optimum situation."

Get the Message

While Pathmark sympathizes with manufacturers, it is insisting that improvements must be made. The chain suggests that major companies return to a policy instituted in the early years of scanning. That is, employing a UPC coordinator who will keep on top of the problem.

"We have compiled our data and sent it out to each of the major manufacturers," continues Giambra. "We're making it available to other chains, as well, who agree that what we're doing is of benefit to anyone who has scanners. In our memo to manufacturers, we simply said: 'We've done a survey and we've looked at your product and you are violating the UPC guidelines. It's causing us a problem in these areas. We're not trying to pressure you or to say that you have to throw out product, but we'd like to know that you're going to be working toward making some type of improvement on your product.' If a manufacturer makes a blanket statement that it is not going to do anything, we'll set a date at that point and plan to discontinue the products."

Other major chains are sending similar messages to manufacturers. "At Ralphs, we're in the embryo stage right now," says Small. "We would like to think manufacturers want the problem corrected as much as we do, and we feel we're going to get their cooperation. That's the approach that we're going to take. They are going to be notified if there is a problem and they will take corrective steps to make sure that the problem does not happen again."

Jewel Foods has told manufacturers that, as of May 1, 1985, if a product has a poor UPC symbol, the chain will react. However, the firm has said it may not actually refuse to carry an item, but it will be nonaggressive about promoting it.

Overall, it's doubtful that retailers will, in fact, refuse to carry popular supermarket items. Says Patharmk's Giambra, "It's silly to say that we won't sell something that the customer may want. But we may not give manufacturers the deals or take the benefit of the deals they have for promoting or putting the product on sale."

Pathmark strongly insists that it doesn't do a scanning chain any good to carry or promote products that won't scan. "It doesn't pay us," says Giambra. "Why bother? They're cutting down our productivity. They're not getting the benefits either. Somebody's not paying attention and it doesn't make any sense. What happened over the years is something that I don't think we can afford to have happen again. We're going to keep looking and keep watching to make sure that the symbols maintain their quality."
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Author:Johnson, Mary
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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