Two University of Arkansas professors have found that placing imperceptible barcodes on products — to make them scannable on any side — may prevent injuries among cashiers and lead to more retail efficiency.
Molly Jensen, a clinical associate professor of marketing in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and Kaitlin Gallagher, an assistant professor of exercise science in the College of Education and Health Professions, began collaborating on the barcode research project in 2016.
Their findings were recently published in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, a leading peer-review journal. The research has implications for workplace safety, retail and marketing, and applied and industrial ergonomics.
Every year, some supermarket employees miss work because of occupational injuries like overexertion. While previous research has studied checkout counter redesign, sitting versus standing check stands, and enviro-packaging, no testing has been done to determine how changes to the Universal Product Code — barcodes — could affect upper arm muscle activity related to scanning consumer products.
Jensen first started conducting barcode research in the McMillon Innovation Studio on the University of Arkansas campus after learning about workplace injuries. Research moved to the Exercise Science Research Center when she needed access to equipment for measuring human performance.
Gallagher got involved at that point and the pair of professors recruited 17 experienced female cashiers to scan three sets of products, each with a different type of barcode application. One set of products had one or two marks on their packaging, the traditional method. A second set of products had five marks so that every side of the packaging was covered, requiring less turning and positioning by the cashier during the scanning process. The third set of products used an imperceptible barcode, called Digimarc Barcode, repeating throughout product packaging, meaning the cashier didn’t have to turn, or even fully lift, an item in order to scan it. The cashiers had sensors placed on their arm and neck muscles to measure the activity of their muscles while scanning.
Test results showed that using the non-traditional barcode systems increased cashier efficiency, and that the imperceptible barcodes could reduce the chance of muscle injury. Ultimately, customers could also benefit from faster checkout times and by reducing muscle activity during self-check related to flipping heavier products around to find the barcode during self-check.
Funding, equipment and some products for the project came from Digimarc Corporation. The Center for Retailing Excellence at the U of A provided support for participant payment and purchase of the multi-sided UPC consumer packaged goods.