When the Uniform Code Council recently decided America should accept the international standard 13-digit bar code, Claude Fenstermaker wasn't fazed. It'll be child's play compared to what he endured when the original 12-digit format was introduced 30 years ago.
Fenstermaker is manager of the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, where a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum was the first bar-coded product to be scanned for sale, in 1974. "I thought it was pretty amazing," says Fenstermaker, a 21-year-old assistant manager at the time.
But he got a lesson in the system's early limitations: Since most manufacturers hadn't yet printed bar codes on packages, Fenstermaker had to manually apply bar-code stickers to several thousand products a week — not exactly the labor-saving effect proponents had promised. "It occasionally got a bit tedious," he says diplomatically.
Fenstermaker celebrated the inaugural scan's 30th anniversary with UPC Bar Code Day in his store. He even brought the original cashier out of retirement — appropriate, since he's skeptical of self-checkout registers. "I think the consumer prefers that personal touch," he says. Which may be the first time bar codes have been equated with personal service.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.