Create your own barcodes

Posted by Thomas Wong
Create your own barcodes

We definitely recommend using a barcode system to help track and speed up your business. But the question is: should you create your own custom codes, or register them with GS1? This article explores some pros and cons to each approach.

Most people’s experience with barcodes is probably at a retail store. They take an item off the shelf, bring it up to the counter, the clerk scans it in — beep! — and the computer screen is instantly populated with the name and price of that item. This common experience can cause the misconception that the barcode itself actually had all of that information embedded within it.

However, 1D barcodes (a.k.a. one-dimensional or linear barcodes) are really just a series of vertical lines in varying widths. These barcodes, which are common at most retailers around Europe and North America, don’t actually store a lot of information about products. When a barcode is scanned, the string of vertical lines are interpreted by the computer and then output as text.

Scanner reads a barcode, the computer associates a barcode with an item number, and that item number brings up information like description and price on the computer screen

The point-of-sale system can recognize that string of text and will know to bring up certain details — like the name and price of that item — as a result.

That relationship between the barcode and that item had to be established beforehand. The barcodes were generated either by the business itself, or in concert with an organization known as GS1, which licenses barcodes to companies all around the world.

The types of barcodes you’ll see aren’t all the same; different barcodes will use different symbology. That symbology will determine the number of characters it can include, and what specific set of characters it can display. Codes like UPC-A or (12 digits) EAN-13 (13 digits) are often used in retail, and you’ll often see Code 128 (which can display all 128 ASCII characters) represent the tracking codes on packages.

Option 1: Create custom barcodes by yourself

Making and printing your own barcodes isn’t that hard to do. You’ll use software on a computer to generate codes using an existing symbology like UPC-A or Code 39.

First you’ll need barcode generation software, which can generate barcodes and also print them out for you. Or you can use a barcode font, like our handy dandy Archon Code 39 font, so that you can write your own barcodes in a program like Microsoft Word.

It’s up to you how to break down the actual barcodes, but you’ll probably want to build in a hierarchy so that you can see, at a glance, what kind of product a barcode is for. The UPC-A symbology gives you 12 total digits, but only the first 11 digits contain message data. The 12th digit is called the “check digit” and functions as a way to verify the barcode has been read properly. If you’re generating your own codes manually, you can create a check digit with a bit of math.

UPC-A includes 11 digits with message data, and a 12th check digit

That’s the most basic break down of a UPC-A barcode, but you can also do more advanced stuff by breaking down the other 11 digits into sub-categories. That way you can glean a lot more information about a product, even if you only have the 12-digit code. Here’s a quick example of what an Archon Optical barcode for Ghost glasses could look like:

Example of a custom 12-digit UPC: first six digits stand for product type (glasses). The next four digits stand for product name (Ghost). The 11th digit stands for "not polarized", and the 12th digit is a check digit.

Once you have generated your actual barcodes in a program, you’ll want to print them out with a label printer so that you can physically attach them to your products. We’ve had success with the DYMO LabelWriter 450, but there are many other choices out there.

You’ll also want to choose a barcode scanner. We’re biased here because we love the colors on our USB Scanners at the inFlow Shop, but there are a lot of good choices out there for under $100.

Once you’ve generated barcodes and actually stuck them on products, you’ll want to tie those barcodes to product names in the inventory or point-of-sale system you’re using. Inventory software like inFlow Inventory will have specific fields for you to scan barcodes in; once the barcodes are associated with a product, you can then scan them in any time you’d otherwise have to type a name or item number into the computer.

This can be accomplished for a few hundred dollars, depending on the software and hardware you end up choosing. The key thing to remember here is that the equipment will be yours, and the barcodes that you create won’t have any extra fees associated with them.

Option 2: Create barcodes with GS1

If your long-term plan is to sell your own products in other stores (which use different point-of-sale systems), then you’ll want to make sure your barcodes are created and registered with GS1. This won’t take as much personal know-how and software, but it is a greater financial investment. Let’s take a look at the Universal Price Code (UPC) once more.

As we talked about earlier, a standard UPC-A barcode has 12 digits in total. When you register a barcode with GS1, there are different tiers you can purchase based on the prefix size. These tiers have differing company prefix lengths — longer prefixes are cheaper, and smaller prefixes are more expensive.

For example, registering a 9-digit company prefix with GS1 costs $750 for a maximum 100 unique items (as of 2016), and there’s also the $150 annual renewal fee to consider. The fewer barcode digits used for a company prefix, the more products you’re allowed to register under that UPC.

A barcode with a six-digit company prefix can have 100,000 possible products; a barcode with a seven-digit company prefix can have 10,000 possible products.

With officially registered barcodes, you will still have to generate the barcodes yourself, but you have fewer actual digits to play with. Once you’ve registered a prefix with GS1, you’ll have access to the GS1 US Data Hub | Product (yes, the name is a mouthful). That online tool will help you to generate and track all of the barcodes in your business. The barcodes you create with that tool will all be registered, which makes them eligible to be used at other businesses.

As for printing: you can export the barcodes from the Data Hub for printing labels out yourself, or you can send the image files to a registered GS1 service provider. They can help you design and print the barcodes for use on packaging or boxes, if you’d like something more than just a simple label.

Wrapping up

The choice between having your own custom barcodes vs. registered barcodes really boils down to this: would you like to sell your product at stores other than your own?

Creating your own custom codes can be done with your home computer, some software or font packs, a scanner, and a label printer. Once you have the right setup, the costs are about the same whether you choose to create 100 barcodes or 1000 (you’re just paying for paper and your time at that point). This can be a great choice if you’ve got a smaller shop, or if you just need barcodes to help manage inventory.

But if you want to enable other businesses (especially larger big box stores) to stock your product, you’ll need to go the registered route with GS1. That means you’ll have to pay GS1 for the registration and annual renewal fees, and it can be costly to purchase shorter prefixes that allow you more barcodes. You’ll still have to make the actual business connections yourself in order to sell your products at other stores, but at least you’ll have the logistic work in place when you have registered codes.

The links in this article point at US-specific resources, but you’ll be glad to hear there are GS1 offices all over the world. So if you’re looking to start barcoding your business and prepare for growth, your local GS1 office is a great place to start.

Thomas Wong

About Thomas Wong

Thomas is a 100% human being who divides his time between writing medium-sized articles with his keyboard and taking large photographs with his camera.

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  1. Thanks for the interesting article.
    Can the barcode include letters? Our SKU numbers are something like EC281. Or is a better to associate a diget only code that would specify the SKU number.