A customer buying a foam paint brush at a hardware store gets a surprise at the check-out when the scanner identifies the 49-cent brush as a $26 hammer. This customer and the others also waiting in line get increasingly dismayed at the confusion and annoyed at the delay while a supervisor works with the cashier to try to find the correct product number.
This real-life scenario and similar versions were too frequent, recalls Timothy Martin of his days as the IT director of a lumber and building chain. Now, as executive consultant in the Retail Practice at consulting firm CGI, he sees compliance with the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) as a remedy to that situation. The retailer’s distributor had imported the brush from a company who used the European Article Number (EAN) standard which was truncated by the retailer’s scanner.
With the looming Sunrise 2005 — the upcoming deadline for the GTIN to gain compliance in North America for what is elsewhere a numbering standard, time is running out for manufacturers and retailers to ensure their IT environment is compatible with the 13-digit GTIN.
Driven by large global buying groups, companies should store a product identifying number in a logical orderly manner with a minimum 14-digit space, right justified with zeroes filled to the left, explains Martin. Existing UPC codes can still be used.
This is not a scanner or printer issue, he stresses. “Scanners can be reprogrammed to read nearly any configuration. It is a database storage and data reuse issue.”
While there are some similarities to Y2K in terms of a deadline to convert systems to accept a number, the level of excitement and lack of hype is a definite contrast. In fact, Martin admits it has “been a big yawner so far” as he and no doubt other consultants wait by their silent phones. He expects the demand for help to pick up volume as the deadline draws near. “It’s one of those grunt, shirtsleeves issues that never gets any boardroom respect,” he declares. “This is not your snazzy, wireless system that’s customer facing. This is a back-room data storage issue.”
Another reason for the little attention is that many software vendors have already prepared for GTIN when they upgraded their solutions for Y2K. However, Martin cautions that any firm that is attaching importance to any of the existing UPC code digits will have a problem if they do not make their entire system GTIN compliant. For example, a retailer may have a program that reads the number in a certain position to reveal the manufacturer for a bulk purchasing program. If it is not GTIN compliant, it will truncate that longer number and throw off the value.
Martin says those most at risk of being affected and not prepared for Sunrise 2005 are companies running legacy systems with flat file-based systems not commercially available, and who are importing UPC-based hard goods from overseas.
He says they need to track an item all the way through the organization, find out what programs touch that number and how it is stored. “Where you stumble, you have to go in and redefine the field, make it wider and then recompile the program. Then load the data back into the wider field. It’s exactly what we did with Y2K,” he adds.
GTIN and related data synchronization efforts are being driven by global marketplaces seeking to eliminate the translation of numbers in order to reduce the cycle times and get products onto shelves faster, says Martin.
Another initiative coming out of this is Reduced Space Symbology (RSS) which displays the product code as a tiny tag rather than the familiar linear bars and numbers.
Also in the wings is a Global Location Number (GLN) that includes a number unique to every destination. Martin says including a GLN will enable manufacturers and distributors to identify in the product’s coding its ultimate retail location.