Check out the bar code of the future

Sharp-eyed readers have noticed a change in the bar codes on some coupons and they wrote in to ask about them.

Q: "I have used coupons for many years but I notice that most coupons now have two bar codes on them. Why are there two? What are they for?"

A: The two sets of bar codes on manufacturer coupons have been in place for a while. However, in the months ahead you'll see coupons transitioning back to a single bar code. So what exactly is going on? If you'd like, grab any manufacturer coupon and follow along.

The bar code you see on the left side of a manufacturer-supplied coupon is the traditional, GTIN-12 Universal Price Code that has been in use since 1974. This code revolutionized supermarket shopping and coupon redemption when it was introduced, since it allowed cashiers to automatically scan products and coupons at checkout time versus manually entering prices and coupon values.

The bar code on the right is the newer GS1 DataBar. The GS1 bar codes first started appearing on coupons in 2007 alongside the traditional bar codes. In 2010, a phase-out of the traditional 12-digit UPC is planned and once it's complete we'll no longer see the old-style bar codes on coupons.

Why the switch? While the older bar code system has worked well for years, the newer system offers more features for both stores and manufacturers to track and monitor sales. With the current UPC, coupons are limited in the values that can be assigned to them. The old bar code doesn't offer enough ways to configure data in order to offer the widest possible variety of redemption amounts. The new system will allow customized coupon values in any amount up to $999.99 (which would be a very valuable coupon, indeed!) The new bar code also contains the expiration date for the coupon, a valuable tool for stores and cashiers who previously had to verify expiration dates manually. (Believe it or not, current bar codes do not validate the expiration date at all, so this is an important improvement to help reduce coupon fraud for retailers too.)

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