Back in the day, when I was a young lad bagging groceries at the local supermarket, getting to carry a price gun was a mark of distinction, reserved for the stockmen who filled the shelves with goods. They also got to carry the now-infamous boxcutter, used to slice around cardboard boxes to allow easy access for shelving product. But you couldn't see the boxcutters. The price guns (or pricing guns) were stuck in their back pockets, ready for use, made from yellow plastic and loaded with a roll of labels that jutted from the top. Small dials on the top were used to set the price, which was printed onto a label and ejected at the front end with a click of the trigger.
When I "graduated" to stockman, the thrill of using a price gun was all I expected it to be, and more. Being mechanically inclined, I quickly became something of an expert on the device and in short order, I was the go-to guy for fixing ones that weren't working properly.
It's really a fascinating device, able to dispense small labels with prices--and more--directly onto items as fast as one can pull the trigger. The ones I used had ink cartridges that would sometimes leak badly; I'd guess that's a rare occurrence with the newer ones.
But the entire point of the price gun was to price the items for the benefit of the cashier, in the days before price scanners. If an item had no price label, the cashier would have to call someone to do a price check. Or--more often than you might expect--the cashier might know the price of a particular item off-hand. Of course, there were fewer products in the past, making this possible. Today, it would be very difficult to know every price in a supermarket, especially given how many change on a weekly basis.
With the advent of the bar code scanner at checkout, the need for every item in a store to be individually marked diminished rapidly, though stores that don't stock by tagged location still tend to mark each item, as do specialty stores and clothing boutiques. And oddly enough, it's the clothing industry that provided the impetus for the development of the price gun.
Small ticket items in general stores could simply have prices listed for cashiers, as could most mass-produced items (this practice still exists in places like Home Depot, for purchases of things like rope, chain, and fasteners). But clothing was a different matter, since each item was priced differently. Getting a price wrong on a ladies dress could be an expensive mistake.
And of course, the price tags needed to stay on the items, with a staple being the most preferred method, since it was the most resistant to tampering and accidental removal. In 1904, Frederick Kohnle--an Ohio inventor who already had various patents on ticketing related devices--introduced his Pin Ticketing Machine, under the umbrella of the Automatic Pin Ticketing Machine Company of Dayton, Ohio. This device printed two lines (price and other information) onto a ticket from a roll, automatically advanced to the next ticket, and cut the ticket along with a length of wire for a staple. It was a table-top, hand operated device, though Kohnle soon developed a floor model that was foot operated, leaving the operator with both hands free to attach a ticket as it was produced to the proper item.
It really was a revolutionary development. Kohnle continued on from there, eventually founding the Monarch Marking System Company in 1920, which refined and built on the original concept. After Kohnle's death in 1944, the Monarch Company moved forward, developing a handheld price gun shortly thereafter. By the 1970's, the Monarch price gun had achieved the form that still persists today. Really, there have been only minor changes since the mid-seventies, as the basic structure has proven to be about as good as it gets.
Other companies have developed similar devices by working around Monarch's various patents, but the Monarch remains the top dog in price guns, though large stores will usually need only one or two on the premises, as opposed to thirty years ago, when there was one for every stock person.
I got to thinking about this change while shopping this morning. I was buying just two items at a Walgreens and it so happened that the store had just installed a brand new system for the cashiers. Generally speaking, UPC-based scanners and debit cards make for quick and easy checkouts, though it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for me to make my purchases. I couldn't help but think how quicker it would have been if each item had a price on it, the cashier punched them in and totaled things, and I handed her the $5.02 I was being charged.
But such is the way of things, of modernity and "improvements."