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How to Create Barcodes to Use in Your Small Business

Posted by ThomasLast Updated April 29th, 2024
— 9 minutes reading

It’s been 17 years since we first released inFlow. Since then, we’ve spoken with tons of small businesses about how they can improve their workflow. One of our biggest easy wins has always been teaching them how to create barcodes.

So, for this article, we’ll be doing just that! This post will cover three major subjects:

  1. An overview of barcodes, including how computers read them.
  2. How to create barcodes with a barcode font or barcode generator for internal use.
  3. How to create barcodes through GS1 for external use. 

We wanted to keep things simple, so we’ve boiled everything down as much as possible. 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! You can also watch our podcast about barcodes below. Otherwise, read on!

Secret Life of Inventory | How to Create Your Own Barcode System (Everything You Need to Know)

What is a barcode?

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 populates 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.

The truth is that 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 happens when you scan a barcode?

When you scan a barcode, the computer interprets the string of vertical lines and then outputs it as text.

The barcode system can recognize that string of numbers and will know to bring up specific details such as product name and price.

How to create barcodes #1:
The scanner reads the line spacing and width in the barcode and interprets the data into numbers/letters.
How to create barcodes #2:
The computer associates the numbers/letters encoded into the barcode with a product number.
How to create barcodes #3:
If your using inventory software like inFlow, the item information will pop up such as description, price, etc. when you scan a barcode.

You must establish the relationship between the barcode and that item beforehand. The barcodes you create and use can be generated by your business or with the help of 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. Retailers use codes like UPC-A (12 digits) or EAN-13 (13 digits), 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 guide for anyone starting out in barcoding. It covers some of the most widely used barcoding acronyms, so be sure to check it out.

Option 1: How to create barcodes by yourself

Creating your own barcodes is easier than you think. It’s also a great option if you need barcodes for internal uses like asset tracking. 

First, you’ll need a barcode generator to 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.

Example of how to create barcodes using an excel instead of an inventory management system.

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:

How to create barcodes that can be used externally:  Order custom UPCs from GS1 which are made up of 12 digits. In the example of the ghost glasses the first 6 digits stands for the product type. The following 4 digits would be product name. The number after that would stand for either polarized or non polarized and the final number is the check digit.

In the above example, we used numbers only, but it’s important to remember that you can create 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. Other symbologies, such as CODE39 or CODE128, don’t use them.

This option is perfect if you want to create barcodes for internal inventory management. If you need to create barcodes that other organizations will recognize, 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, a few categories of products 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 USD for ten barcodes (as of 2024) 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:

A barcode created 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.

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. When you create barcodes with that tool, they will all be registered, making 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 for printing. 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

After you create your barcodes, you’ll need to design your labels. If you’re an inFlow user, you can take advantage of our label designer. We wanted to make it easy for our customers to customize their labels however they want. The label designer also has a built-in barcode generator for those not using registered GTINs.

Once you have your label designs ready, 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 many other choices exist.

You’ll also want to choose a barcode scanner. You can find scanners for under $100 in both wired and wireless versions. Just this year, we reduced the price of our wired scanners to $49.99 USD. These are useful if you scan at a fixed location and don’t want to worry about battery life. However, the best choice for warehouse workers on the go is a wireless scanner that offers mobility to travel down different aisles.

Once you’ve created 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 will have specific fields where you can scan barcodes. Instead of typing a name or item number into the computer, you can scan the barcode instead.

The good news is that, depending on the software and hardware you choose, you can get everything you need for as little as a few hundred dollars. 

Wrapping up

Are you still deciding whether to create your own barcodes or use GS1-registered ones? It really comes down to whether you want to sell your product at stores other than your own.

For internal inventory management, creating your own 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.

However, if you want to enable other businesses (especially larger big box stores) to stock your product, you must create barcodes with GS1. That means you’ll have to pay GS1 for the registration and annual renewal fees. Remember, you could always go the single GTIN route and avoid the renewal fee if you just need to create a single barcode.

Recently, we decided to partner with GS1 to set up our Official GTIN Barcode Shop. This will make it easy for people to purchase individual barcodes. We take zero commission on the barcodes you purchase, so you’ll pay the same whether you buy them from us or directly from GS1.

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. You can fill in the barcode fields yourself or have inFlow 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 barcodes and labels, check out this video:

How to Generate and Print Barcodes

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