When it comes to applying technology in retail, the importance of global standards cannot be overstated.
There are many examples of why this is true, but one of the more timely and pertinent ones in the food industry is 2005 Sunrise, the deadline set by the Uniform Code Council for North American retailers to be able to handle eight- and 13-digit bar codes (EAN-13) used in Europe and elsewhere outside North America.
2005 Sunrise is necessary because there was no global standard for bar codes when they were introduced back in the 1970s. In North America, the UCC created 12-digit bar codes (the Universal Product Code, or UPC), and a few years later EAN International, the UCC's counterpart outside North America, decided to use 13 digits for its bar code.
That worked satisfactorily in the beginning, but as commerce became more global, the dual system resulted in added costs for manufacturers who traded globally and needed to maintain two sets of bar codes. Now, the UCC and EAN International are engaged in a belated effort to create a global bar-code standard, or GTIN (Global Trade Identification Number) that would encompass all levels of bar codes.
To begin conforming to the new standard, North American retailers are expected to adjust their front-end and back-end systems -- no trivial task -- to accommodate the eight- and 13-digit codes (retailers outside North America have long been able to handle all bar-code types).
It is to their credit that the UCC and EAN International (which will be changing its name to GS1) have become increasingly unified in an effort to globalize standards. Last November, the UCC became a member organization of EAN International, and the two organizations jointly manage the EAN/UCC System and the Global Standards Management Process. They are also behind the development of a Global Data Synchronization Network that will enable trading partners worldwide to synchronize data using the UCC's UCCnet subsidiary as a Global Registry.
The need for global standards is now guiding the development of the Electronic Product Code (EPC), the new 96-bit product identifier -- devised by the Auto-ID Center at MIT -- that uses RFID (radio frequency identification) technology as a communications medium. "With RFID especially, we want to avoid the mistakes made with bar codes that led to different bar codes in the U.S. and Europe," said Zygmunt Mierdorf, member of the management board of the Metro Group, Dusseldorf, Germany, which opened its Future Store test lab in late April in Rheinberg, Germany.
This desire to help develop unique global standards for RFID is leading Metro Group to share the findings that come out of its Future Store with other world-class retailers. "There's no way Metro on its own can change the industry or force it to implement this technology," he said. "We need other retailers, including our competitors, to go in the same direction. That's why we are sharing our results."
Bravo for Metro. Here in the United States, some retailers, such as Food Lion, are beginning to work cooperatively with other retail companies in support of UCCnet. At last week's Retail Systems show in Chicago, Linda Dillman, Wal-Mart's chief information officer, and Mike Di Yeso, the UCC's chief operating officer, made an important presentation on Auto-ID, helping to drive the adoption of that standard. (See story, Page 1.)
Let's hope these leaders inspire other retailers to help build global standards and avoid the mistakes of the past.