Over the past 11 years, we’ve spoken with a lot of small businesses. And one of the biggest easy wins for us has always been teaching them how to create barcodes.
If you want a more in-depth look at how to start barcoding your small business, check out our Ultimate Barcoding Guide. It covers everything in this article and more! Or you can watch our podcast about barcodes below.
This post will cover three major subjects:
- Reading barcodes
- How to create your own barcodes for internal use
- Creating GS1 registered barcodes for use at other retailers
While you may not have made barcodes yourself, chances are you’ve seen them in stores. Who hasn’t had the experience of going to the store and hearing that iconic beep as your item passes through the checkout? Instantly, the computer is populated with the name and price of that item. This shared 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, commonly used at European and North American retailers, don’t actually store much information about products.
Note* For the sake of simplicity, we’ll be focusing on 1D barcodes in this article, not QR codes.
What is a barcode?
When a barcode is scanned, the computer interprets the string of vertical lines and then outputs it as text.
The point-of-sale system can recognize that string of numbers and will know to bring up specific details such as product name and price.
The 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 worldwide.
Types of barcodes
The types of barcodes you’ll see are all different. 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 (12 digits) or EAN-13 (13 digits) are widely used in retail, and you’ll often see Code 128 (which can display all 128 ASCII characters) represent the tracking codes on packages.
We put together this handy little guide for anyone starting out in barcoding. It covers some of the most widely used barcoding acronyms you’ll come across, so be sure to check it out.
Option 1: How to create barcodes by yourself
Making your own barcodes is pretty easy to do. It’s also a great option if you just need barcodes for internal uses like asset tracking.
First, you’ll need a barcode generator, which can make barcodes that you can print out. Or you can use a barcode font, like our handy dandy inFlow Code 39 font. This font allows you to 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 contain message data. The 12th digit is called the “check digit.” Its function is to verify the barcode has been read correctly. If you’re generating your codes manually, you can create a check digit with a bit of math.
That’s the most basic breakdown 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 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:
In the above example, we used numbers only, but it’s important to remember that you can have barcodes with other characters, and not all barcodes need check digits. The check digit is an error-checking feature of certain barcode symbologies such as UPCs. While other symbologies, such as CODE39 or CODE128, don’t use them at all.
This option is intended for anyone using barcodes for their internal inventory management. If you need barcodes that will be recognized outside of your organization, you’ll need to register them through GS1.
Option 2: How to create barcodes with GS1
Registered GS1 barcodes are necessary for anyone looking to sell products at large retailers or on platforms like Amazon. Amazon now requires all listed products without the Amazon GTIN exemption to have a GS1 registered barcode.
GS1 offers different tiers for registering barcodes based on how many you need. The most cost-effective tier for a GS1 US GTIN is $30 for one barcode, with no renewal fee. This is a good option for businesses with just a handful of products. However, there are a few categories of products that aren’t eligible, so make sure to read the GS1 US GTIN page in full before purchasing.
If you need more than nine barcodes, you’re better off purchasing a company prefix. Company prefixes start at $250 for ten barcodes (as of 2021) and scale to 100,000 or more. In addition, you’ll need to pay an annual renewal fee. For the complete list of prices, head to the GS1 US Company Prefix page. But for now, here’s a breakdown of what barcodes look like at different tiers:
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.
Depending on your location, you’ll need to register a specific barcode type with GS1. For example, India uses GSTIN, North America uses UPC, and Europe uses EAN.
Labels can be exported from the Data Hub to print. However, you can also work with a registered GS1 service provider. They help design and print custom barcode labels for packaging or boxes.
The hardware and software you’ll need to create and use barcodes
Once you have generated your actual barcodes, you’ll want to print them out with a label printer and 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. You can find scanners for under $100 in both wired and wireless versions. Wired scanners are useful if you’re scanning at a fixed location and don’t want to worry about battery life. The best choice for warehouse workers is a wireless scanner that allows you to walk through different aisles.
Once you’ve generated barcodes and stuck them on products, it’s time to tie those barcodes to product names in the inventory or point-of-sale (POS) system you’re using. Inventory software like inFlow Cloud will have specific fields for you to scan barcodes in. Instead of typing a name or item number into the computer, you can scan the barcode instead.
The good news is you can get everything you need for as little as a few hundred dollars, depending on the software and hardware you choose.
Still wondering whether you should create your own barcodes or use GS1 registered ones? It really boils down to whether or not you want to sell your product at stores other than your own.
Creating barcodes is simple and cheap. All you need is a computer, some software or font packs, a scanner, and a label printer. Once you have your setup, the costs are about the same whether you create 100 barcodes or 1000. It just becomes more of a time investment on your part. This is an excellent option for smaller shops 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 must go the registered route with GS1. That means you’ll have to pay GS1 for the registration and annual renewal fees. You could go the single GTIN route and avoid the renewal fee if you just need a single barcode. We even made this process easier by partnering with GS1 to create the inFlow GTIN Barcode Shop, where you can purchase up to nine GTINs for your products.
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.
Generate barcodes in inFlow
After speaking with hundreds of customers about barcoding, we’ve realized that one of the most valuable things we can show them is how to create barcodes.
That’s why we’ve built that feature right into inFlow Cloud. You can fill in the barcode fields yourself or have inFlow Cloud automatically generate unique barcodes for your products. Also, you have choices about how to print the barcodes. You can print directly to DYMO printers or create shelf labels to scan.
If you’d like to learn more about how inFlow can create unique barcodes and labels, check out this video: