The Barcode Hunt

I’m a frequent Costco shopper—buying things in bulk just makes sense for a growing family. Every trip has the same ritual to it; find the things we need, avoid the things we don’t, try lots of samples (a.k.a. lunch) and then… wait in the enormous lines. Many people dread going to Costco solely because of the long lines. I would hazard to guess that this is one of the biggest friction points in their customer experience.

So, what’s the problem? While there are lots of small factors that slow things down, one stands out in my mind—I like to call it ‘the barcode hunt’.

To illustrate: By the end of my Costco trip I’m ready to be done, and the toddler that’s usually with me is WAY ready to be done. So, while waiting in line I try to organize my cart so the checker can scan the large items in the cart and get us on our way quickly. But invariably there are a few things—always heavy and bulky on the bottom of the cart—that need to be moved to find the barcode. By my guesstimation, this box dance burns about 30 seconds per transaction. Multiply that by all the shoppers Costco sees in a day, and you can see why the lines are always so long.

But what could Costco do to speed things up?

Yeah, in a future world of RFID and spimes this problem will wondrously disappear—or so we’ve been told (I’m still waiting for my jetpack). But in the short term, there’s lots of time being wasted.

My modest proposal could save those 30 seconds: Print the barcode on all 6 sides of as many products as possible.

Every item in the cart would be scannable in any position, speeding the checker’s task and getting me on my way faster.

A change like this could work wonders for checkout lines everywhere, including self-checkout kiosks. (for some fun ethnography: go watch people using self-checkout kiosks find the barcodes on products—it’s an eye opening experience). But I focus on Costco for two specific reasons: motivation and muscle.


Costco has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the country. They sell good products at good prices, stand behind all the goods they sell and go out of their way to treat their employees well. They have crafted a customer experience that, with the exception of the lines, is top notch. Having proven that they ‘get’ customer experience, it seems that a relatively small change like this could take hold.


Costco is an 800lb retail gorilla that uses their market muscle to get better pricing and quality from their suppliers. If they choose to, they could dictate barcode location rules to their suppliers. Costco also has a huge house brand, ‘Kirkland Signature’, where they have complete control of the final form of their packaging and could easily shift to a 6 barcode design.

How about it Costco, will you make my next lunch visit, err I mean, shopping trip a bit more streamlined?


Niels Bom
Nice idea! To not entirely obliterate the design of the packaging you could also print the barcode on every side of every corner, for a whopping total of 18 times. Another added benefit is that you don't have to aim exactly for the middle then.
The self-checkout systems that have been implemented here in Sweden works by giving you (the costumer) a portable barcode scanner that you use while you put your products in your cart. It doesn't solve the problem of finding the barcode on the item in the first place but atleast it allows you to only have to handle the item one time. Grab it from the shelf -> Scan it -> Done...
There's an easier way, and it operates at my local supermarket:
  • Provide scanners so shoppers scan on the way around the shop.
  • At checkout, they dock the scanner and pay the bill.
  • One in every so many shoppers is subject to a spot check by a checker in order to encourage honesty.
Shopping and scanning are collapsed into one activity for the majority of shoppers, passing through checkout is quicker as you are only paying, so lines move more quickly.
wonder if people would struggle less to find a barcode if each was unique and beautiful like these Japanese barcodes
Dave Cronin
Noah, this is a clever suggestion. But what about this: if they're going to bother thinking about how they print their packaging, why not just print it ONCE, ON THE TOP OF THE PACKAGE. Maureen, those are great!
Noah Guyot
Niels: yeah, the corners would be cool, good idea! Tomas & John: The self checkout stands I've run across in the Bay Area look more like a technological Frankenstein, giving out hand held scanners would be a great improvement. A hand held scanner just pushes the lost time out to the aisles - there's still the cat and mouse game of finding the barcode on the box. Many of the boxes at Costco are large and heavy, making it difficult for a single person to maneuver the box and scan it. Dave: Having a consistent location would be an improvment, but when you've got 4 or 5 items stacked in a cart, wouldn't it be nice to leave them in place and just scan the barcodes on the side of the box? (maybe even through the side of the cart)

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