Technological, societal and brand environments are driving a revolution in item-level unique identification of items on the retail shelf. Consumers expect that they will be able to capture information like nutrition data, instructions for us, and provenance of an item by a quick scan with their mobile device. GS1 has published a new standard, Digital Link, that takes web-enabled unique ID one step further, creating a path for bespoke delivery of information, depending on the context of the query. One single code can deliver, for example, nutrition, recipe, allergen and recycling information to the consumer, marketing and product campaign information to the retailer, and handling and hazard information to logistics providers.
Smart phones are everywhere. The computer that powered the Apollo moon missions in the 70s had 33k bits of RAM. Most of us carry around in our pockets a computer with more than 4 trillion bits of processing power — that’s 7 million times more than it took to get humans to the moon. Mobile devices are a powerful portal for accessing information, and this enables new business models and standards practices that were not possible even five years ago.
Providing a unique identifier for every item on the retail shelf, and associating that identifier with product data, will require electronic and data infrastructure capabilities that we are only now able to meet.
The consumer has become a voracious consumer of information.
The distance between the consumer and information is thinning – there’s less in between the source and the recipient. Social theorists call this “the thin interface.” We like the ability to get our own information, when and where we want it.
In the US, we formerly collected information about current events from a centralized source, the daily paper or the nightly news. Now, we choose our own news from online news sources like aggregators and social media. We choose what kind of stories we receive. This is a thinned interface.
Do you want a place to stay in a foreign city? Not too long ago you’d have to phone a travel agent who would find a hotel in the right neighborhood, at the right price. Now? You pull up your Air B&B app on your smart phone and take care of it yourself. Also a thinned interface.
The thin interface also applies to things like nutrition information. Consumers want to know everything about what they put into their bodies, and their family’s. Access to complete allergen information can save lives.
And people want to know about an item’s provenance — we don’t want computers built with conflict minerals, nor do we want to commit the love of our lives with a blood diamond. We want to know that our food was ethically sourced.
While consumers used to trust brands to provide the pre-purchase product information they need, most buying decisions are now made via internet research, before the consumer contacts the vendor. Consumers look to social channels like Facebook, Reddit and Instagram for purchasing advice. A Google search on a product might not lead to the brand’s website, but perhaps a competitor’s or a page of questionable online reviews.
Brands are losing control of the conversation.
The ability to select and disseminate product information that web enabled unique ID provides gives brands the ability to regain some control.
GS1 Digital Link
The GS1 Digital Link standard uses web-enabled barcodes to share product information to the consumer.
“Similar to the way a web address (URL) points to a specific website, GS1 Digital Link enables connections to all types of business-to-business and business-to-consumer information. And instead of being limited to one type of data carrier like a traditional barcode, brands can now use a QR code, radio-frequency identification (RFID), GS1 DataMatrix tag or near-field communication (NFC) to deliver this information to their customers.”
The power of GS1 Digital Link is that the data returned to end user is contextual — it’s a dynamic code that delivers different data to the user, depending on things like which app was used to access the information, the user location, time zone, demographics or a campaign. By scanning one single Digital Link code, a consumer could access a recipe or nutrition information, a retailer could see a calendar for item promotions and store planograms for that item, and a logistics provider could learn the product’s handling information and track its journey through the supply chain.
For example, a consumer scanning a box of rice would likely see provenance, nutrition and ingredient information, but they might also see a recipe or a coupon for a discounted price. An Australian consumer would see the recipe in metric system measures and the coupon in Australian dollars, while an American consumer would be delivered content in English measures and US dollars.
A retailer scanning the very same code would see things like lot number, a calendar for discounts and promotions on the product, maybe even planograms so that the retailer can display the boxes of rice in an effective, brand-approved manner.
A logistics provider or warehouse could scan that very same code and access handling information or hazard information (although rice isn’t terribly hazardous, many CPGs, like cleaning products have the potential to be).
And since Digital Link can also hold a product’s UPC information. GS1 anticipates a new era of just one data-carrying code on a package: Digital Link will eventually displace the on-pack UPC code.
GS1 published Digital Link on February, 2020. You can read the standard here.