LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. - Wal-Mart Stores last week was scheduled to launch the largest test to date to determine whether produce items can be bar-coded and scanned at the POS.
Loblaw Cos., Toronto, is also going to participate in the test, which is being conducted under the auspices of GS1 US (formerly the Uniform Code Council) here. The test will not employ the standard UPC bar codes applied to Center Store products. Instead, the produce items - in Wal-Mart's case, apples from one supplier - will be coded with Reduced Space Symbology bar codes that contain a 14-digit Global Trade Identification Number and are small enough to be placed on loose pieces of fruit.
Bar-coded apples "should start hitting [stores] this week," Marty Heires, Wal-Mart's spokesman on technology issues, told SN last week in an email message. Heires downplayed the test, calling it a "very small matter" compared with Wal-Mart's test of RFID technology taking place in about 500 stores across Texas and the Southeast. Wal-Mart is conducting the RSS test at 29 stores in Washington state.
Still, the food distribution industry has been discussing for years the need to place bar codes on produce and other perishables, putting them on a technological par with the rest of the products sold in a supermarket that bear bar codes.
"This has the potential to change the way things are done in the industry," Larry Kieswetter, senior director, produce procurement, Loblaw, told SN.
RSS bar codes are designed to speed up the checkout process as well as to ensure accuracy by eliminating potentially costly mis-keys of PLU numbers or misidentification of items such as organics by cashiers. "Not every apple will be entered as a red delicious apple," said Greg Rowe, director of business development for GS1 US.
Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., is to be joined in about three weeks in the produce test by a Loblaw store in Kitchener, Ontario, where apples and bananas (both conventional and organic) as well as avocados will be coded with RSS codes and scanned at the POS, including self-checkout lanes. Rowe called the overall test the "largest implementation to-date of RSS codes."
Wal-Mart and Loblaw are part of what's called the RSS Core Implementation Team, which also includes produce suppliers Melissa's, Ranier Fruit and Fruit Patch. Loblaw said the chain is getting bar-coded apples from Ranier and bar-coded bananas from Dole.
The produce labels containing the RSS bar codes - the stacked omnidirectional version - will also display the traditional price look-up number that cashiers key-enter to identify a produce item and its price per pound. Unlike PLU numbers, RSS codes will also identify the product's supplier, helping in inventory replenishment, Rowe noted.
GS1 US hopes to expand the produce test to other retailers "after we get implementations going and get cashiers used to it," Rowe said. Meat and poultry products will be added to the test in the third quarter, he said. GS1 US plans to publish results by the end of the year.
Loblaw was involved in a previous test of RSS codes on produce in 2003, but that effort was stymied by lack of supplier participation, said Kevin Koehler, vice president of retail systems for Loblaw. "Unless you have a large enough volume, it's tough to get cashiers to be consistent about scanning," he said.
Koehler said Loblaw will be assessing cashiers' diligence in scanning the codes, as well as how well the equipment scans them. "The RSS codes are very small and more difficult to scan than regular UPC codes," Koehler said. Loblaw will be using plastic produce bags that are especially clear to facilitate scanning codes through the bags.
In its test store, shoppers will have an opportunity to scan the produce codes at self-checkout lanes, Koehler noted.
In another test of the use of RSS bar codes, Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio, tried the technology on meat products in 2001.
Most up-to-date POS scanners are able to scan 14-digit RSS codes, but POS application software and databases may need to be modified to accommodate the codes. Similar modifications are required for scanning 13-digit codes coming from outside North America.
Heires said that "a small number of modifications" to scanners, POS software and other systems were made for Wal-Mart's produce test. "Much of our equipment is ready for RSS functionality and we have a multiyear strategy to ensure that we are RSS capable worldwide."
In addition to Wal-Mart, Loblaw and the suppliers, the RSS Core Implementation Team also includes Albertsons, Food Marketing Institute, Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Manufacturers Association and several technology vendors, including NCR, Hobart and Mettler Toledo.