The bar code revolution

'The arrival of the silicon chip has ushered in an era of cheap computing. Just as the cost of a pocket calculator has plunged over the last few years, so computers will get steadily cheaper, and this means that before long we will have to get used to computers cropping up in every walk of life.'

 ("JS Journal", March 1979)

Sainsbury's was the first food retailer to computerise the distribution of goods to its stores with the installation of an EMIDEC 1100 computer at its head office in 1961. However, it was the introduction checkout scanning from 1979 which signalled a technogical revolution for retailing.

Checkouts equipped with bar code scanners and linked to a central main frame computer brought obvious advantages for both the customer and the retailer. Aside from speed and accuracy, the itemised till roll or 'bill that speaks for itself' proved popular with customers. For the store, scanning provided instant access to sales information for the first time.  The new system was described by one American supermarket chief as 'the greatest market research tool ever invented.'

Find out more about checkout scanning at Sainsbury's

New technology at Sainsbury's: 1961-71

1961 - EMIDEC 1100 installed at Stamford House, making Sainsbury's the first food retailer to computerise the distribution of goods to its stores. The computer was so complex that it had been necessary to order it two years in advance - it took over the stock control of non-perishable lines, which had previously been performed by the mechanised Power Samas punched card system.

1969 - The new ICL1906E computer occupied a floor space of 4,000 sq ft - an area equivalent to the size of a supermarket.

Plessey stock ordering unit

1971 - New Plessey stock ordering technology enabled goods to be delivered to stores within 24 hours. Each branch was supplied with two Plessey data capture units which recorded orders for a range of non-perishable goods. Attached to each unit was a light pen, which was passed over a barcode on a shelf edge label, then ordered via a keypad.

The orders were recorded on a magnetic tape inside the unit, then sent to Blackfriars via an ordinary telephone line, using a transmitter located at the rear of the shop. From there, orders were relayed to the appropriate depot.

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