Road to the UPC
 Symbol Selection Committee



The Code Management and the Symbol Selection committees were both established by the Ad Hoc early in 1971. The Symbol Selection Committee had four grocery retailers and four grocery manufacturers as its membership chaired by Alan Haberman, Vice-Chairman of First National Stores in Boston.  They were told to have their recommendations ready by April 1973.

Alan Haberman held executive positions with several retailers in the Northeast including Hills and First National. He served as Chairman of the Symbol Selection Committee and on the Ad Hoc Committee.

At their first meeting June 1st, 1971 the symbol selection committee agreed March 30, 1973 would be the latest date to recommend a symbology. Then they discussed the considerations to be included: technical details of scanning equipment, printing quality capabilities, and cost elements impacted by scanning at the checkout. Additional summer meetings defined the selection process and identified who might offer selection candidate symbols. Eventually 21 organizations indicated an interest although not all of those actually submitted a proposal. The committee met almost every month until the symbol was decided upon on March 30, 1973. The Ad Hoc Committee announced the decision on the third of April 1973.

Encouragement to and equal treatment for all who might propose symbols was paramount to avoid legal challenges to the Committee's recommendation. Picking a symbol would require expertise beyond that of the committee members. For printing expertise the committee engaged the Graphics Arts Technical Foundation in Pittsburgh, PA. For assistance in measuring checkout productivity the committee looked to the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, OH. Battelle was to discover some symbol proposals had unacceptable miss-read and no-read rates.

Certain companies made internal technical tools available to the committee. For example, IBM's Rochester, MN Laboratory made available PIDAS, the Pictorial Information Dissector and Analysis tool, that measured printing precision, It was used by Battelle to quantitatively measured the then current printing to evaluate the actual precision by using the “T” in Net Weight on products that they purchased from stores.

Larry Russell was actively building his parametric model to evaluate the economic impact of automating alternatives for the front end. Battelle measured the impact of symbol location, symbol characteristics, and some of the scanners when vendors made them available to the committee on a non-disclosure basis. In addition a Cost Benefit model included in the "Phase I Report” was developed to discover if the standardization project was worth the costs of it. Many parts of the store would be impacted by changing the checkout. Beyond the speed of checking products the committee wanted to know the impact on checkout accuracy. To measure the existing cashier error rate the committee set up a trailer in a NYC grocery store parking lot and asked selected customers coming out on the store if they could check their grocery bags and receipts. They learned that the store had about a one percent error rate in the customer's favor. Unfortunately shoppers leaving a store, talking to someone and then entering a large trailer looked more suspicious than it actually was. Before too long the police showed up to find out what these customers were doing in the trailer in the parking lot. Today most recognize the parametric and the financial benefits model as a main cause of the UPC's success. At the time much focus was given to directly displace-able costs such as labor cost reduction, shrink reduction, etc. which were shown to be sufficiently significant to justify the project on its own. But over time we learned to appreciate the value of the detailed information or soft benefits and see that they exceeded the value of the “hard” benefits.

By January 1973 all signs indicated scanning at the checkout was economically justified. All the proposed symbol technologies were still under consideration. So in January 1973 the Symbol Selection Committee held a three day meeting in San Francisco and every organization with proposals had the opportunity to present their case in 20 minute sessions. Odds makers at that time would have guessed there were two strong contenders: RCA and IBM. RCA because of its legacy support for the automation of checkout, clearly omnidirectional proposed symbol, and a year long store test had a slight edge. IBM, because of restrictive rules preventing any disclosure of unannounced products, had not participated in any visible tests outside their company, and it was proposing a symbol that looked like it required computing technology that might not be available for years. But,it could mathematically show it had the lowest error rates and the most dense recording of information.

The IBM presentation was made by Bob Evans, a senior VP at IBM. After reviewing the advantages for the linear symbol proposed by IBM, he said, “I know you may have concerns about what computer could keep up with scanning this symbol in a store checkout.” He reached in his pocket and took out a CD with micro-circuits on it and then said “Each circuit on this disk is equivalent to a moderate size existing computer. If IBM were to develop a system, we would put one of these circuits in each checkstand. When IBM left Al Haberman, Chairman of the Symbol Selection Committee leaned over and softly said to Barry Franz, “My God, they've got it!” Both Barry and Al suspected it was running in some laboratory at IBM.

After all the presentations the committee voted and selected the IBM proposal as the symbol for the Universal Product Code. But there was a concern. The Committee sincerely wanted as many vendors as possible in the market offering checkout solutions that scanned the UPC. The selection of the IBM proposed symbol combined with IBM's prominent position in the industry raised concerns that other vendors might decide to withdraw. The Committee then decided to cut off the top of the right, left and center guard bars in the IBM proposal. This allowed them to state they had created their own symbol from the best of those proposed and not selected any proposed symbol.

And the committee also wanted a respected outside evaluation of their decision. The outside evaluation came from MIT in Cambridge, MA who concurred with the decision, but recommended changing the type font for the human readable numbers at the bottom to OCR B. MIT stated that within a few years equipment might be able to automatically read the OCR B numbers and the bars would not be needed.

The committee met in the last days of March 1973 to formally send their recommendation to the Ad Hoc Committee. The Ad Hoc committee agreed with the Symbol Selection committee and announced the UPC in a release the first week in April 1973. This led to a dramatic recognition of the projects results at the May 1973 Super Market Institute Convention in Dallas, TX. The SMI show (now the FMI show) is annually the largest food retailing show in America. The Ad Hoc stayed in place until 1975.

The UCC Board, named in 1973, initially was the four or five members of the Administrative sub-committee which was established in 1971 under Bob Stringer (General Foods) to figure out how to administer the UPC system. It quickly became obvious that more top management envolvement was needed as the Ad Hoc was phasing out.

Jack Strubbe (Kroger), Burt Gookin (HJ Heinz), Bob Wegman (Wegmans), and Bob Schaberle were put on the UCC Board with one of them holding the Chairmanship for the next eight years. Behind the scenes, Steve Brown (Legal representative), Barry Franz (P&G and the Symbol Selection Committee) and and Tom Wilson (McKinsey & Company Principal) acted as an executive committee until roughly 1988.

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Symbols Proposed