Guest Column | July 18, 2022

2D Barcodes: The Future Of Point-of-Sale?

By Vernon Witney, Code Corporation

QR Code Payments

It has been 40 years since U.P.C. barcodes debuted in the retail industry, and they are starting to show their age. Practically synonymous with price checks at the grocery store, the venerable Universal Product Code (UPC) has been the industry standard for product identification. However, a new type of barcode is starting to gain traction in the market: 2D barcodes. Debuting in automotive production to track the components used in cars, 2D barcodes add a whole new dimension and layers of data, information, and connection to a scan. These include several types of barcodes such as QR codes, DataMatrix, Aztec Code, and so on. GS1 US, the not-for-profit organization responsible for administrating the Universal Product Code (U.P.C.) barcode, is calling for the industry to make a transition to 2D barcodes by 2027.

There are some massive benefits for retailers, manufacturers, and consumers, but it remains to be seen whether the challenges of implementing 2D barcodes across the industry will be worth the effort.

There are some fundamental differences between U.P.C. barcodes and 2D barcodes. U.P.C. is linear, meaning it can only store a limited amount of information. They are also susceptible to damage and wear and tear over time. If part of the code becomes obscured or damaged, they are difficult to scan and read. In contrast, 2D or ‘stacked’ barcodes can store much more data—up to 7000 characters of information—in a much smaller space.

One of the benefits of implementing GS1 US's Sunrise 2027 initiative is that it would give manufacturers and retailers a whole new world of data about their products. Manufacturers would be able to use 2D barcode data to track production quality and compliance with safety standards. Retailers could track products throughout the supply chain from manufacture to sale and identify patterns and trends in consumer behavior. This traceability would allow them to make more informed decisions about inventory management, marketing, and product development. They could also add transactional data retailers can use at the point of sale: you bought chips, there is a sale on salsa, and so on.

Additionally, consumers can be educated and enlightened with a plethora of facts going beyond the country of origin for their produce. A simple scan with their smartphone can give them rich details such as what individual farm the product came from, empowering them to make informed buying decisions such as supporting farmers who use sustainable farming practices and organic growing methods. Before buying, shoppers can see batch numbers, expiration dates, and literally hundreds of additional details right at their fingertips.

Similarly, retailers can better understand what they are selling just as consumers can better understand what they are buying. When it comes to product recalls, this is particularly important. If there is a concern with a certain product, the manufacturers can use 2D barcode data to get to the root cause of the issue more quickly and can determine the exact batch that needs to be recalled. Moreover, they’ll know precisely which stores sold the recalled items. On the consumer side, from lettuce to baby food to electronic devices, there is no waiting to find out about a recall because retailers can say: "scan here to find out if your food is safe." Then, instead of guessing, consumers can simply scan their 2D barcode to see if the specific product they purchased is part of the recall. This process protects not only the health and well-being of more consumers but also can save manufacturers and retailers millions of dollars as well as an immeasurable amount of goodwill.

There are some challenges associated with implementing GS1 US's Sunrise 2027 initiative, however. One of the biggest challenges is that it would require a significant investment from retailers, manufacturers, and other stakeholders to implement 2D barcodes worldwide.

Generally, manufacturers print the barcodes on the product and packaging. Today, if they want to incorporate a barcode, they apply for a U.P.C. and assign it the specific, limited data they want, such as country code, vendor ID, and product code, and they're done. That U.P.C. barcode works anywhere in the world. They can print millions of them and the barcode will stay the same.

With 2D, the data is by nature variable, which will cause logistical complexities. Even a simple change, such as switching batch numbers, would require a new barcode. For many industries, this would require scaling up printing capabilities and packaging redesigns. For some, package redesign is not an issue, for others, it means the difference between profitability and failure.

One of the biggest challenges facing the transition is the cost of implementing new barcode scanners and software across millions of retail locations. Barcodes must be printed by the manufacturer and read throughout the entire global supply chain. To do that, the scanning technology has to be in place to read them. Many retailers around the world still use old laser or charge-coupled device (CCD) scanners, which work well with 1D/UPC barcodes. The 2D barcodes will require an upgrade to imaging scanners to capture the data. Among other things, manufacturers want quality and efficiency, retailers want profitability, consumers want to be informed and governments want the data for safety. Right now, it is voluntary, but it may require government regulation and intervention to drive the transition to fruition. The amount of work is significant, and it may need a multi-stage process, with both a 1D code, then later, 2D code on every package. In fact, that work has already begun in earnest throughout the Middle East and Europe by medical device manufacturers and pharmaceutical firms. However, a few manufacturers of automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) devices like image-based barcode scanners offer an economical 1D-to-2D barcode workaround with JavaScript-based devices.

Some barcode readers use JavaScript, a programming language that makes webpages interactive and online forms auto-fill capable, to parse barcodes for specific data. For example, a nurse can use a barcode scanner with proper JavaScript programming to scan a catheter package carrying one UPC barcode and two or three QR codes and get just the 1D barcode data that is relevant to the task at hand. Seems trivial, but seconds spent rescanning packages to get the proper data, like a model number or medication dosage, delay patient care, diminish caregiver morale, and raise costs. Given JavaScript’s ubiquity, updating barcode readers to adapt to new barcode types is a streamlined affair for any firm’s IT staff.

There are some massive benefits for retailers, manufacturers, and consumers, but it remains to be seen whether the challenges of implementing 2D barcodes across the industry will be worth the effort.

About the Author

Vernon Witney is Solutions Architect at Code Corporation. He has been involved with barcode scanning and data capture for his entire working career. Code is an industry pioneer, leader, and champion for barcode and data capture innovation. It designs and manufactures a complete line of market-leading hardware and software data capture solutions. For more, visit