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Meet 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.)

Additionally, the GS1 DataBar carries a much wider range of information specific to the product that the coupon is to be used for. The older UPC uses a system of "family codes" to help the register determine which item or items the coupon can be scanned with. However, this system has unfortunately been abused, both accidentally and intentionally, by shoppers. With the old family codes, the register checks to make sure that the product purchased falls into a matching family of products made by the manufacturer. But in many cases, more than one product may be recognized as a "match" for that coupon if the product also happens to be part of the same family. This left the door wide open for coupon abuse.

For example, let's say you have a coupon for a box of cereal "16 ounces or larger." When you get to the store, you grab the 12-ounce box by mistake, use your coupon … and it scans just fine! Whether you intended to or not, you've just committed coupon fraud. You have used a coupon on an item it wasn't specified for. Mistakes like this occasionally do happen.

Where UPC family codes become a real problem, though, is when people intentionally abuse the system by trying to determine what other (often, completely unrelated) products they might be able to use a coupon for. One of the most flagrant abuses came to my attention via a story detailed in a popular coupon blog. People supposedly used $10 coupons for teeth-whitening strips to buy baby diapers. The same company made both of these products and the coupons intended for whitening strips successfully scanned when a shopper purchased diapers instead. If the shoppers were successful in slipping their coupons by an unsuspecting cashier, they fraudulently enjoyed huge savings on diapers instead of the whitening strips.

The new GS1 DataBar will completely eliminate this kind of "off-label" coupon use, since the new bar code carries very detailed information about the type, size and variety of product the coupon is good for. It can contain information about the geographical region of the country the coupon is to be redeemed in — even limiting use to a specific store.

Stores around the country are already in the process of transitioning to the new system. Having both sets of bar codes on our coupons during this transition ensures that no matter whether a store is still using the older bar code system or has already started to utilize the new DataBar, our coupons will scan at the register.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon-workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.super-couponing.com. E-mail yo.