STORES CRACK DOWN ON FAULTY UPCS

A growing number of retailers are rejecting products or levying hefty chargebacks when universal product codes don't scan on the first trip through the checkout. At Kmart, checkout registers now record which products don't scan on the first pass. Repeat offenders are subject to chargebacks in excess of $100,000 per purchase order. As a result, brand marketers today are hustling to boost first-pass

A growing number of retailers are rejecting products or levying hefty chargebacks when universal product codes don't scan on the first trip through the checkout. At Kmart, checkout registers now record which products don't scan on the first pass. Repeat offenders are subject to chargebacks in excess of $100,000 per purchase order. As a result, brand marketers today are hustling to boost first-pass read rates from their 80% to 85% plateau to the 97% the grocery industry says it needs for optimum efficiency. Why the fuss?

Retailers claim faulty UPCs put a drag on store profitability and blunt the benefits from significant investments in scanners and inventory-control systems. Misreads and no-reads reduce checkout productivity, skew shrink data, distort computer-assisted reordering and stunt the effectiveness of the bar-code system as a management tool.

They also can increase the hazard of repetitive-motion injuries for checkout personnel. According to figures from Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., each 5% of checkout flow that fails on the first pass translates into more than half a ton of product that has to be lifted, twisted, reoriented or passed per cashier per day on an average eight-hour shift. Causes of misreads and no-reads fall into three areas: information-management, design and print quality, according to the Uniform Code Council, Dayton, Ohio, which is responsible for assigning UPC numbers. Information management problems include: incorrect numbers, mismatches between the bar code and human-readable digits, incorrect number system characters, incorrect check digits, or missing or misplaced characters.

Design problems include: reduced size (below 80%), truncation (reduced height), insufficient contrast between background and code color, improper orientation, insufficient quiet zones or package interference such as placement too near seams or fold lines. Print-quality problems typically result from improper bar/ space proportions caused by bar growth during the printing process. Voids and spots also can cause misreads and no-reads. How do you make sure your package isn't the one that has to be hand-keyed because it won't scan? Following several simple rules recommended by retailers and other coding experts will help. (See chart.) Assistance also is available from a number of sources, including the UPC Symbol Specification Manual published by UCC. To address print-quality problems, the American National Standards Institute, New York, developed a print-quality guideline in 1990. It relies on a device called a verifier to measure eight reflective and dimensional characteristics and determine a rating from A to F. A rating of C and above are scannable; D is marginal, and F fails. UCC is considering incorporating the ANSI guideline into its specifications. A draft document has been released for comments.