Decoding the Code

Written By: The Lowdown - Jan• 31•13

Robert A Heinten said ‘Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something’. This is very true of the bar code which is now found on every manufactured product that we purchase.


The history of the bar code dates back to 1948 when the president of an American food chain asked that research be done on a system to automatically read product information at the till. A student over heard this and together with a friend they set out to develop just such a thing. The patent for the bar code, which was called ‘Classifying Apparatus and Method’, was issued in October 1952. The first use of bar codes was to label railway cars and it was not until June 1974 when a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first item to have its bar code scanned.


It is only in the last 10 – 15 years that bar codes and bar code readers have been seen inZambia, and even today, it is mostly the chain Supermarkets that use them. Our other Supermarkets still rely on a cashier that punches the price into the cash register from the sticky label on the product. The cynic in me compels that I add that these are also the supermarkets where there is usually someone who will help you carry your shopping to the car! And there is always someone to pack your shopping.


But I digress. One of the most regular complaints I receive is that a shopper picks up a product from the shelf, where it is clearly labeled Kx, but when one gets to the till and it is scanned (or should that be scammed?) the price isKy.And I should add that the reports are always that the charge was higher and not the other way around.


How do you avoid being charged something different to the advertised or shelf price without each item bearing a label with the price on it? Bar Codes are inventory numbers which do not contain prices. Bar code errors happen because the price in a merchant’s computer does not match the price posted on the store shelves. So it comes down to the accuracy of the data entered by the data entry clerk which in Zambia, where accuracy is not necessarily one of our strong points, can be quite scary.


Clearly if you are only doing a small shop with a few items, this is easy.  But if you have a large number of items, it becomes almost impossible unless you record the advertised price for each item loaded into your trolley, an exercise a bit like playing darts with spaghetti. Can you imagine the congestion in our already busy supermarkets if shoppers were to write down the price of each item they plan to purchase?


Companies are legally obligated to correct these errors and most will, if you pick up the error. But it is picking up the error in the first place.  In many countries, the Law requires that a customer readable price is attached to an item so that consumers can compare prices and check for accuracy at the till.


Are we setting the bar too high to expect that Zambia will ever see such legislation which is necessary to protect consumers from being over-charged? Or better still, could we expect our shop owners to place customer readable price tags on each item voluntarily?

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