Bar Codes: Y2K Redux?

The new global standard for bar codes mandates 13 digits, not the 12 used in most U.S. systems. This means another round of remediation to meet a January deadline.

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Best Buy will have spent 25,000 hours of staff and consultant time by October just so its systems can read one more digit in each bar code on the packages of electronics products that its cashiers run through their checkout aisles.

That extra digit-part of an international tug-of-war over bar-code standards-was mandated last month after the European 13-digit format was selected as the global standard by Europeans and the Uniform Code Council (UCC) in the U.S. Retailers in this country were accustomed to using a 12-digit format.

Now the UCC, which hands out and oversees bar-code identifiers in the U.S., is expanding the length of the bar codes themselves. Deadline: January 2005.

This is forcing companies to do Year 2000-like remediation on their existing systems. The Y2K issue was also a "field length" problem. In that case, many fields had to be updated from two digits ("04") to four ("2004"). Replacing a 12-digit bar code with a 13-digit code is the same issue.

"Its a pretty intense task," says Rejesh Kannan, a project manager at Best Buy, adding that the electronics retailer had to inventory and fix its applications. "Homegrown applications are very tough to do. Off-the-shelf software is easier to replace."

The changeover wasnt a surprise. The UCC has been promoting the merger between its 12-digit Universal Product Code (UPC) and the 13-digit European Article Number (EAN) for the last seven years. As a result, in January all U.S. retailers must be able to read the longer codes, which Europe adopted in 1977. The extra digit helps identify the country of origin for a product.

Retail and grocery trade groups say theyve prepared for the change. UCC spokespeople say a survey it conducted last year shows there will be "no significant non-compliance in any retail sector" by January. The UCC has not released specific numbers, however, and declines to say how many respondents were compliant before the survey and how many are still getting ready.

But there is little talk of an apocalypse. Most scanners and point-of-sale devices can already handle 13-digit codes; the bulk of the change will come from updates to the back-end applications and databases that process product data.


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