Barcodes are the star of commerce. They’re on our groceries, our Amazon packages, and even on some vehicles. These small black bars have become the universal symbol of a purchasable product.
Even beyond the world of commerce, we wear barcodes on our wrists during hospital stays, and some barcodes can contain embedded website hyperlinks.
So why are they so widespread? What advantages does a barcode scanning system afford businesses?
Let’s start with the basics.
What Are Barcodes?
Barcodes are machine-readable codes represented visually as numbers and parallel lines. When scanned by the laser beam of a barcode scanner, these symbols produce a unique digital code.
Barcodes are affixed to and associated with products to identify and distinguish them.
Barcodes are used in POS systems, warehouses, inventory management systems, or any other database that necessitates inventory data collection and storage.
Why Do Businesses Use Barcoding Systems?
Believe it or not, barcodes were invented in 1951 but weren’t commercially successful until the 70s. You’d be hard-pressed to find another technology developed in the 50s that we still rely on today.
Barcodes offer many significant benefits to businesses, which is why this 70-year old technology hasn’t changed much.
1. Barcodes are a proven and universal technology.
The benefits of the barcode’s longevity in commerce are twofold. Firstly, barcode scanning has had ample time to prove itself as an effective means of commerce identification. Secondly, these little striped squares have been so universally adopted in our modern world that there are countless inexpensive ways for any business to enjoy the benefits of a barcode scanning system (more on that below).
For example, you’ll never run into a warehouse that doesn’t scan barcodes. That’d be absurd. Any organization, distributor, wholesaler, warehouser, or reseller in the commerce world is expected to be well-versed in barcode scanning technology.
2. Barcodes mitigate error.
To err is human, and nobody knows this better than those in the eCommerce world. Anytime you can outsource a human task to technology, you’ll both save time and reduce errors.
Now extrapolate that out to entire systems: shipping, receiving, and the buying and selling of billions of dollars of product. The number of introduced errors would be catastrophic. Barcodes help to prevent these things by systematizing how product data is collected and tracked.
And the bottom line is that errors are costly. They cause poor customer experiences, waste time, and create bottlenecks in your logistics pipeline.
3. Barcodes are inexpensive and discrete.
If you were to purchase a can of tomatoes from the grocery store and notice a QR code on the back, it might be a bit jarring. However, nobody bats an eye at barcodes. They’re everywhere, and even when taking up a lot of real estate on the product itself, they’re widespread enough to be expected. This makes them a discrete choice for branding purposes.
Further, barcodes are cheap. The technology has been around for over half a century and costs very little to generate and print. Barcode scanners are inexpensive (well under $75 for a great one) and used worldwide as the gold standard for product scanning.
Whether you have items for sale, raw materials, finished products, tools, parts supplies, or anything in between, barcode inventory management comes with lucrative benefits.
How to Implement a Barcode Scanning System
The mere mention of implementing a new system strikes fear into the hearts of many business owners. Any new technology is intimidating, especially when it challenges the status quo.
But implementing a barcode scanning system doesn’t need to be scary. Here’s the step-by-step process for how to do it.
1. Figure out the problem you’re trying to solve.
Identify the specific problem you’re trying to solve with barcode technology before choosing a system to implement. Any problem that can be fixed by reliably collecting and storing data can be fixed by implementing a barcode system.
Take some time to analyze your current business procedures and decide precisely how barcodes can help. After that, it’s time to move on to the next step.
2. Conduct an audit.
Audits are essential for commerce success. Period. This is especially true for those using barcode systems for inventory management, but it’s a general best practice for all businesses.
We know nobody likes meticulously counting and logging products. The cold truth is that if you don’t have an accurate understanding of your inventory — whether in your warehouse or somewhere else in your logistics pipeline — you will never be able to trust your data.
Block out a day, bite the bullet, and get it done. You’ll be glad you did.
3. Distinguish your products.
After you’ve audited every single thing in your pipeline, it’s time to delineate your products. Each of these delineations will receive its own barcode, so it’s essential to take your time on this step. Otherwise, you might wind up with duplicate or unparsed data.
Here’s an example. Say you’re a clothing vendor that sells several different kinds of t-shirts. You have graphic tees, plain color tees, and undershirts.
At first blush, you might think you’d need a barcode for each of these. But each of these categories has several permutations that need distinction.
Rather than having one barcode for all undershirts, you’ll need a barcode for every product variation. That means one barcode for “XL Men’s Green Undershirts” and another for a Medium Women’s Grey Undershirts.”
Even if you only sell three different “categories” of product, you’d likely end up with 30-50 distinct barcodes.
Remember, barcodes only store and transmit the data that you choose to store in them. If you want to track each variation of your product inventory separately, you’ll need different codes.
Logging these product permutations in an Excel spreadsheet is an easy and inexpensive place to start.
4. Set up your infrastructure.
Now that you’ve found your “why,” conducted an audit, and prepared your products, it’s time to get some equipment.
A sound barcoding system has three essential parts:
- A way to produce and print barcodes
- A scanner to decode barcodes
- A platform to receive decoded barcode data
5. Print and label your inventory.
Once you’ve adequately categorized your products, generated your barcodes, and set up your scanner, it’s time to print and label your inventory.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of software platforms that can help you do this with just a few clicks. Heck, there’s even a free barcode generator you can use and print right from your browser.
Now, all that’s left is to enjoy your well-earned efficiency and watch your profits rise.
Barcodes are just a simple, effective way to store data. That data can be manipulated, stored, or tracked in dozens of different ways to help eCommerce businesses stay efficient and organized.
They’ve been proven over decades of use to be reliable and inexpensive, and their popularity shows no signs of slowing.
You can implement a barcode system in a few hours while spending virtually nothing, making it tough to find something to complain about this technology. For any business looking to stay organized, efficient, and error-free, barcodes a must-have.