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The price is still right for checkout scanner
Device's 1974 debut spawned a retail revolution

TROY, Ohio -- It was only a pack of chewing gum. But its sale 25 years ago marked the debut of the checkout scanner and a fadeout of the days when cashiers' fingers had to fly over register keys to keep store lines moving.

On June 26, 1974, that 10-pack of Wrigley's gum was moved across an NCR Corp. scanner in the Marsh Supermarket in this city of about 20,000. Linda Rozell, general merchandise manager, was there that day."It's really hard to believe our little, small store here started the whole thing nationwide," Rozell said.

The "thing" it started was a revolution, first in retailing and then across other industries. The same technology that allows a computer to read a series of bars and numbers and add up a grocery bill quickly and accurately also enables a store to track its inventory and the buying habits of customers. It provides a retailer and its suppliers with instant marketing information.

Scanners and bar codes have also allowed companies such as Wal-Mart Stores and Federal Express to create distribution systems that have set standards for efficiency and cost-savings within their industries.

They've made it possible for government agencies, institutions and companies to easily access databanks for information about people. Many states put bar codes on drivers' licenses to help police obtain information about motorists.

Bar codes show up on luggage tags, helping airlines get a suitcase to the right destination. They've been used in the Iditarod race in Alaska to keep track of the dogs on each team. Scanners and bar codes show up on ranches, replacing the brands once used to identify cattle. Laboratories use them to make sure patients' results aren't mixed up.

When it was still a grocery store novelty 25 years ago, Marsh's cashiers found using the scanner awkward, Rozell recalled. Customers weren't quite sure what to make of it.

"They were skeptical," she said. "But no one ever really threw a fit."

Mary Shoup, a Marsh shopper, has embraced the technology.

"It seems to be faster," she said. "And it seems to be pretty accurate."

Dayton-based NCR said it picked the store in Troy for the first retail use of the scanner because it was nearby and Marsh was a cooperative customer.

Cathy Hotka, vice president of information technology for the National Retail Federation, said the scanner has transformed the industry.

"It's huge," Hotka said. "Having the ability to scan a product means a retailer can track when that product is sold and where it's sold. Retailers have a way to make sure they don't run out of the product."

The scanner has also enabled retailers to tailor their merchandise to their customers.

"In some locations, people won't eat chocolate ice cream," Hotka said. "In some locations people have wider feet because they are different nationalities."

Trends are spotted more quickly because of the scanner.

"Colors, for instance, go in and out of style," said Hotka. "A retailer can now track not only what kind of T-shirt is selling, but what color. It's one reason fads can take off faster than before."

Tracy Flynn, vice president of food industry marketing for NCR, said about 90 percent of U.S. retail chains have scanners. He estimated 1 million scanners are in operation worldwide.

Flynn said scanners have gotten both smaller and better at reading bar codes. The latest trend is toward self-service checkout scanners as a way for stores to cut costs and deal with labor shortages.