Thursday, July 2, 2015

Stickers or Lasers? The Change in Tracking Produce

Recently, I reread a story discussing a technology in which lasers are used to mark produce with the goal of eliminating those little labels on everything from apples to zucchini. 

As with most disruptive technologies, there are often unforeseen hurdles; consumer acceptance, immature technology, integration into business processes, etc. The laser marking technology was getting a lot of press a few years ago and it was projected to replace the produce stickers; aka Price Look-Up code (PLU) labels.  

What is a PLU Code?
The PLU code is a 4 or 5 digit human readable number that represents any of about 1400 unique produce varieties. 
product packaging
Examples of Fruit Labeled with Laser Technology
The History of PLU’s
Many of you reading this will remember that for most of your life (prior to 1990) there were no PLU stickers on fruits & vegetables.  To add slightly more perspective, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it was common for grocery stores to have barcode check out systems.

So, the two obvious questions are:

  • What changed in the grocery industry just prior to 1990 that would have created the demand to add what seems to be an overly obvious label?
  • Why do we need a label on a banana or for that matter an apple?

It turns out there are very good reasons for a PLU code label.  

What Changed in the Grocery Industry?
Target announced in 2010 that it planned to add fresh food to half of its stores by the end of 2011.  However, Target is really the upstart big box store in the grocery industry, but growing fast.  Walmart has been into the grocery business a little longer; they started adding grocery sections to their stores in 1988 and boosted their presence in the grocery market with the launch of Neighborhood Market in 1998.  I honestly don’t know the back story, but hmm … that starting date is very coincidental. 

The fresh produce section of your local grocery store has gone through a pretty incredible transformation in the past 25 years.  In the old days the most exotic thing we could get were bananas, and sometimes supply was a little sketchy.  Sure, seasonal fruits and vegetables were available, but the seasons were very short.  Today, we have fruits and vegetables from all over the world with the biggest transformation in a supply chain of produce from Latin America and South America.  We can now get grapes and berries any time of the year, with very extended seasons for almost everything else along with a vast array of other regional and ethnic specialties. 

What Makes the PLU Label so Important? 
pineapple packaging
The PLU not only exactly identifies the produce with a human readable number, but there is a special barcode and a lot of information on the label.  Sure, the number identifies the specific type of apple (in case you’re wondering, there are 208 individual PLU code numbers for apples alone), but if the number is 5 digits and starts with ‘9’, then it is an organic apple and an ‘8’ indicates genetically modified produce … who knew?   

So how does all this tie together?  The short answer is that the PLU code label provides granular and timely information to the grocer that drives supply chain efficiencies.  The simplest benefit for the grocer is accurately charging the consumer.  There is now so much efficiency and information in the system that the grocer can offer a huge variety of products and bring them in just-in-time (JIT); they know what sells and what doesn’t.  The grocery check-out system provides pull through information to the supply chain to generate automated JIT re-supply from a central warehouse with minimal loss to ensure my local market will have fresh stock.
The PLU code label is just the visible component of this huge change in supply chain prowess; increases in computer processing power, broadband connectivity and let’s not forget to give a nod to the chemists.  Scientists have been tinkering for years with the chemical cues that ripen and delay ripening using ethylene gas and other molecules.  The modern day supply chain consists of many impressive elements, especially the packing & ripening warehouses that tailor the exact amount of ripening agent to certain varieties of produce just prior to shipping to the grocer.
Image result for plu code
I am not entirely sure how those labels are applied, but that is an operation I would very much like to tour.  Although I don’t like the inconvenience of peeling the PLU label off prior to use, I most definitely like the variety in my local grocery store.  

So what is hampering the laser etching technology from being implemented in some categories of the produce marketplace?  I imagine thin skinned products like plums or nectarines might be an issue, but think what about bananas and melons?  Perhaps this laser technology can even add local grower information alongside the standard PLU data to influence consumers to pick a farmer branded produce
packaging consultant

. By Eric Carlson, CPP@EricPkg

Pic from

Eric Carlson is a Senior Packaging Engineer on the Chainalytics Packaging Optimization team. His track record of success ranges from developing packaging solutions for high cost and complex systems to implementing net cost savings through supply chain damage reduction. 

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