The Uniform Code Council just announced that the UCC/EAN-128 extended coupon code has finally, positively, absolutely, incredibly, amazingly been approved! For those of you who are not familiar with the ins and outs of joint industry committee activities, the food industry generally moves rapidly in tackling industry problems and challenges. Good examples are the universal product code and the uniform communications standard. The extended coupon code, however, has been an exception. This code has been in the works for more years than I have been consulting, which is why it is very exciting for me to see it finally pass. Now we have a code to work with. The first and most important point is that this is a supplemental code, not a replacement for the current UPC coupon number system 5 code. When the UCC/EAN-128 is added to a coupon, there will be two bar codes. The UCC/EAN-128 has the potential of being up to 22 digits long, if manufacturers include an offer code, number system, expiration date and household code. So we could see some interesting creative work on coupons in the future. The second most important point is why "code 128" and what does that mean, anyway? Code 128 is a "symbology," a term that refers to the type of bar code being used. It is a specification for a certain numbering formula, that the symbol has to contain certain types of guard bars, that it must be a certain number of digits, etc. Scanner vendors then produce different scanners to read various symbologies. The ones in supermarkets, for the most part, only read "UPC symbology."
The 128 code is a different symbology for the UPC, so a lot of supermarket scanners (scanner logic, to be exact) will have to be changed in order to recognize and decode it. However, the changes can be made gradually. When manufacturers add code 128 to the coupons, the supermarket scanners that haven't been changed yet will ignore it. So why do it? Because the scanners in the coupon-processing plants can be changed more easily, and so most of these processors will be able to read code 128, giving the manufacturers more data in the interim period between now and when the supermarkets make their changes. The other positive thing about the 128 is that it is designed to be formatted in different ways. Once a supermarket scanner is changed to read it, other versions of code 128 can be used for other applications. For example, organizations such as the National Livestock and Meat Board are anxious to add a supplemental code to their packages, so the industry can start to monitor meat purchases the same way we use scanner data for dry grocery and health and beauty care products. My complaining about the amount of time it took aside, I congratulate the joint industry committee and the Uniform Code Council for establishing a standard that will bring us "out of Mexico" on coupons, and help provide a solid base for the collection of other types of product information in the future.