Wacky Business Idea #14:

Of all the business ideas that I’ve had bouncing around in my head, I think this is the #2 best idea (I’ll either finish this series with my best idea or keep it for myself. I don’t think this is the most popular “theme” we post on, so I’ll probably end it after the 20 ideas I originally mentioned).

Barcodes have become increasingly pervasive since their introduction in 1974 (the first item with a barcode purchased was a pack of chewing gum). They’ve been a boon for retailers, as it lets them easily tie in their inventory to their point-of-sale. Every time an item is sold, they can electronically remove it from inventory, instead of having the cashiers manually track it or doing inventory regularly (both would be very labour intensive).

My idea is to subvert a bit of the power of barcodes back to the consumer side of the equation. Imagine a website where it starts with a very simple interface, something like Google. You can type in a barcode off of any product that you purchase. After typing it in, there is extensive information about the produce, such as its manufacturer (and contact info for them), a forum for discussing it, similar products, nutritional info, or anything else people want to track. Inexpensive barcode scanners could be ordered from the site for people who are regularly using it.

Special interest groups could provide an “overlay” of the data, where people who join their group get information about the products. Vegetarians might flag products based on whether they’re Lacto-vegetarianism, ovo-vegetarianism, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, Semi-vegetarianism or pescetarianism. This would help vegetarians who recently adopted a new philosophy about eating to determine which of their staples are safe to continue to consume (and perhaps find alternatives to favourites). A kosher overlay could help people who have recently adopted an orthodox Jewish diet to evaluate their diet (or maybe help young Jews leaving home stay kosher once they’re buying for themselves), if they were too lazy to look for the kosher symbol on foods they buy. It could even be used for groups who want to boycott companies that support particular causes the consumers are opposed to or who do business with sweatshops.

More sophisticated applications could be built on top of the barcode platform as it gets more data, such as a diet site that will import all the information about what you’ve eaten and track all your daily consumption (of calories, fat, vitamins and whatnot) for anything you input with a barcode and an amount.

Whenever a user looks for information that isn’t in the database, it would then encourage them to find out the information and enter it (and allow other people to fix incorrect information that had been entered).

In terms of a business model, money could either be made by advertising to users (whom the system would know very well once they’ve entered barcodes of what they regularly purchase), selling their user data (with their permission of course), or selling to a larger company (such as Google) once your user base was large enough.

Something that is a very, very early idea of this can be seen here (I was going to incorporate the data he freely provides when I was thinking about building this). I actually had a friend who got pretty excited about this idea and wanted to invest in it, but I could never get my act together to do more than make a few simple mock ups and fairly trivial versions of the site (similar in functionality to the site linked to). Money isn’t need to build something like this, just a developer who is willing to keep banging out code.

12 replies on “Wacky Business Idea #14:”

are barcodes that specific? i thought you could have the same barcode on products that would not be in the same store. like an adult film DVD and a special edition bible. the store initially scans in the barcode and identifies the product associated with it (and the price)

@Nobleea: AFAIK, the product barcodes are unique and assigned by UCC to the manufacturers, who in turn assign them to their own products. See . Not sure if the same manufacturer can “recycle” codes from very old products to new ones…. There is a class of codes reserved for store use (e.g. when you buy store-packed goods, like meat, fruits, etc) and that’s the only way you can get the same code on two different products.


In addition to kosher and vegetarian food, this could be a great resource for those with allergies (like me). It could also potentially do geographic price comparison (think about this plugged into an iPhone using Google Maps and GPS). The targeted advertising potential also seems quite impressive.

Brendan: Those are two more good use cases (allergy tracking and price comparisons / tracking). I think it would become a rich platform for all sort of additional usages (that was one of Microsoft’s strokes of genius: rather than being all things to all people, they created a platform that many different things could be built on, each new thing that was built on it made the underlieing platform more valuable).

Most ideas about new businesses or products are either best for a very small business or are bound for failure. This idea actually sounds very promising. It would not surprise me to see this come to fruition at some point. Great post.

As a kosher consumer I have to say that looking for a hechsher (identifying mark of the supervising agency) is a lot faster and easier than looking up barcodes and most of us do it pretty unconciously.

But it is an interesting idea and I think anything that demystifies the barcode is valuable. I received an email the other day (that I haven’t really checked out yet) claiming that the first few numbers of the bar code identify the coutry of origin. I’m not at all sure that this is true, but I’d love to know more about the barcode and how it works (not the scanning part, the data).

Shevy: Yeah, I realize that looking for the hechsher is quite a bit easier (that’s why I put in the lazy comment). I think it MAY have value if someone had recent adopted a kosher diet, and they wanted to find alternatives to what they’d been eating. They could say “this thing I like to eat doesn’t have a kosher symbol, what is the closest kosher alternative?” and look it up in the system (which people who care about it would have entered).

I’ve never gone kosher, so maybe looking for the symbol at the supermarket is just the easier approach…

Great idea! I have seen a “thing” advertised in the past that allowed a person to scan an item, which then added it to a grocery list that they could print from their computer (I think you could also use it to order items online). This might be a good addition to this site.

This reminds me of something I had several years ago (back during the dot-com boom): the CueCat. You could scan a barcode from a product and it would take you to the manufacturer’s web site.

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