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Matt:

So I eat bananas pretty frequently, and for some reason I kept a couple of those little round stickers they put on bananas in every bunch. They are from separate banana purchases, from separate stores. One sticker says "Del Monte" and "Ecuador," while the other says "Carmelita" and "Mexico." But here's where it gets eerie. They both say "#4011." What's the #4011? Did I just happen to get bananas from both of the 4011th bunches of bananas exported from their respective places of origin? Or is 4011 simply the international food number for "banana"?

-- r, the net

Banana numbers are as American as Mom's 4139 Pie. Reduce all goods to digits and life will be richer. Freedom will ring throughout the land. Your banana bumper stickers are SKUs. Stock keeping units. Every store worth its laser scanner assigns a "skew" to the smallest product unit for which inventory and sales records are maintained. This might be a particular brand and size of detergent or just bananas as a general category, regardless of the source. The grocery checker punches in the skew, and the store's computer feeds back the product name and price (which are printed on your sales receipt) and reduces the store's inventory figures. With some types of purchasables, trade associations have arranged with growers/manufacturers and retailers to assign a common skew to, say, green beans, so no matter where they were grown or where you buy them, the skew is the same. The store doesn't have to come up with its own unless it wants to price and inventory beans from Mexico differently from beans from Fresno. The skew is part of the (yawn) unbelievably complex Universal Product Code system used on millions of wholesale and retail items. (It's been reported that Wal-Mart has a database of 300,000 SKUs.) But as the name "Universal" suggests, the labels will say 4011 even if you buy your bananas on Neptune.

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