retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There is an obituary in the Washington Post totally worth reading this morning, of George J. Laurer, who essentially created the bar code.

Laurer passed away last week at age 92; he was suffering from prostate cancer and a heart ailment.

The Post obit says that in the early seventies, IBM "was working to develop a bar-code and scanner system that could be used in supermarkets across the country to track inventory and speed up checkout lines … The bar-code concept had originated in the 1940s, when N. Joseph Woodland designed a bull’s eye-shaped system of concentric circles, inspired by the dots and dashes of Morse code. It took decades for computing and laster technologies to catch up to his vision, but Woodland was now an IBM colleague of Mr. Laurer, who had been instructed to develop the bull’s eye system for commercial use."

Laurer's job was to develop a pitch to make to supermarkets, but when Woodland went on vacation, Laurer did something else - he came up with the "zebralike pattern of vertical black lines, became the basis for the modern bar code — the Universal Product Code — which shook up everything from retail to air travel, marathon races to medical devices. A staple of soup cans, sports cars and most everything else that is sold in stores, UPCs are scanned more than 6 billion times each day, according to GS1, a nonprofit organization that manages and issues the codes."

Laurer, an inveterate tinkerer, knew that he was betting his job by coming up with a new concept rather than doing what his bosses wanted. In a classic case of understatement, he said, "“My arguments must have been persuasive.”

The Post obit points out that Laurer was tinkering almost to the moment of his death, "working to make his hospital bed more comfortable and using timer-controlled lamps so that his clock glowed blue or red depending on the time of day."
KC's View: