The Road to the UPC

Industry Organizes The Ad Hoc Committee

Maybe it was the concerns of the special interests of each trade association but several months passed without significant progress toward a common identification for specific products. Proposals for automated checkout had been made and industry executives were concerned that multiple solutions could force them into packing and maintaining an inventory for each brand of checkout. It was time to try a different approach. Just over a dozen key grocery manufacture/retail executives, a few trade association executives and a few lawyers were asked to a meeting at the O'Hare Inn just outside the Chicago airport in the August of 1970. The trade association committees that had worked on the project first met with the key executives and explained that they needed to create a committee among themselves and then left. In the next meeting the executives organized themselves:

Burt Gookin Heinze Inc.
Burt Gookin
Chairman of Ad Hoc Committee

The meeting was completed in an hour and fifteen minutes.

The Ad Hoc subcommittee hired McKinsey and Company to manage the project. Tom Wilson was McKinsey's Principal Consultant and Larry Russell managed the project detail on a day to day basis. Both have oral histories on the ID History Museum site. Larry got right to work and soon was developing the business case for standardizing on a product code. The following year this would evolve into the Parametric Model which allowed participants to evaluate different proposals. There was hardly any discussion about a symbol at this point. The industry began to recognize that a standard identification code would benefit everyone.

The key group began visiting vendor companies and key people in the industry. They got a variety of reactions from: Jewel Tea who had worked on a performance tuned key-only system, to NCR who felt key entry electro-mechanicals still had a long life, to Zellweger who developing a scanning system, to Charagon who had patents to promote for a code and symbol, to RCA where Fran Beck (has an oral history on the ID History Museum site) was actively developing a scanning system, to IBM who declined to participate but would talk with the group when asked for information.

In early 1971 a Code Committee was formed to standardize on a code structure headed up by Bob Stringer of General Foods. Later they formed a Symbol Selection committee headed up by Alan Haberman of First National Food stores. A GMA analysis in early 1971 uncovered that more than 95% of the products sold in the USA had 5 or less numerical characters in their case code. On the way back from a west coast brain storming session, a time when there was more good food and lots of beverage on long flights, the members realized they could assign a 5 digit number to the manufacturer and let the manufacturer assign their own item code to make a unique 10 digit code. Later an 11th digit would be added to help categorize the item, called the number system number. McKinsey took on the task to present this approach to hundreds of companies asking them to state in writing that they would support this approach. All but two readily agreed. This allowed the Ad Hoc to announce the general agreement on a coding format by the May 1971 Supermarket Industries trade show in Dallas, TX, a major step.

By this time most people recognized a code like this would have to be scanned if there were to be any significant checkout productivity gains.

Back to the start.

More about Symbol Selection in the next installment.