Behind the ‘beep’: how to use a barcode

barcode

As we celebrated the 40th birthday of the barcode last month, we found ourselves wondering how many businesses truly understand the humble symbol and all that goes behind it. More importantly, do you understand the value of it for your everyday business operations?

According to global standards organisation GS1, the familiar beep of the bar code is heard approximately five billion times around the world every day. It all started in 1973 when industry leaders came together to select a single standard for product identification. The barcode quickly proved it had more value than speeding grocery-store checkouts, and, over the past 40 years, it has become a common way for trading partners around the world to identify, capture, and share information about products, locations, and more.

At Matthews, we are often asked how bar codes work, so we’ve put together a new FAQ section on our website to answer your questions.

Here are a few interesting facts about barcodes that we think every business should know:

What is a barcode?

A “barcode” (also “bar code” — note the space) is a machine-readable image used to represent data. A barcode scanner decodes the image and sends the data back to a computer system, where it is interpreted and processed. Barcodes can be used to identify trade items or products, locations, logistic units (cartons or pallets), and assets in a wide range of industry sectors, from retail to healthcare.

Why do I need a barcode?

In Australia, retailers have adopted the GS1 system of barcoding and numbering. This means that if you are selling your products to a retailer or into the healthcare system, you need a barcode. Some major retailers such as Coles, Woolworths and Metcash will not accept your products without GS1 barcodes. Barcodes can help you and your customers keep track of sales, stock, orders and price information. Using barcodes will reduce costs and increase accuracy and efficiency in your supply chain.

In France, a study called “17 billion reasons to say thanks” (Vineet Garg, Charles Johnes & Christopher Sheedy) found that bar codes lead to an annual savings of 6.59% of retail revenue.

How do I know which barcode I need?

Not all barcodes are the same. Different types of barcodes fit the needs of different applications. In Australia, the types of barcode include EAN/UPC, GS1 DataBar, GS1-128, ITF-14 and GS1 DataMatrix. Check-out systems in retail stores use EAN/UPC bar codes that represent the identification of the item; while logistic applications often use GS1-128, a barcode designed to encode the item ID and additional information, such as lot number or best-before date. You can learn more about all the barcode types on the GS1 Australia website or ask us.

How does a barcode work?

A bar code uniquely identifies your product using a product identification number called a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN). The stripes you see in a traditional bar code are the graphical representation of the GTIN. This number is printed below the image. Today bar codes also come in patterns of dots, concentric circles, and hidden within images.

Barcodes are read by optical scanners called barcode readers or scanned from an image by special software. When the barcode is scanned at point-of-sale (POS), at a checkout counter or in the warehouse, the information is decoded and sent to a computer where it is processed and interpreted.

Do I need a different barcode for every product?

If your products are exactly the same in every way (size, shape, colour, weight, flavour, etc.), you will require the same barcode number, known as a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN).

If a product is slightly different, it must have a different barcode number so it can be distinguished from other similar products.  Even a small change in size or weight will mean a new barcode is needed. Only packaging design changes do not affect the barcode numbers.

Does a barcode contain price information and a description of the item?

Generally no. The lines and bars of the bar code simply represent the bar code number (GTIN) that uniquely identifies the item. All the information about the item is contained in a computer database, which is retrieved by scanning the bar code at the checkout or in the warehouse.

How do I get a barcode?

Before you can get a “graphic” barcode, you first need to get the numbers that go inside the barcode. In Australia, GS1 Australia is the only organisation authorised to register and issue barcode numbers (known as Global Trade Item Numbers, or GTINS). A non-profit organisation, GS1 Australia makes sure the barcode numbers that you receive are unique against other numbers and that no other business is authorised to use your numbers on their products. To have barcode numbers registered to your business, you need to be a member of GS1 Australia. Visit the GS1 Australia website for more information on joining.

It’s important to note that GS1 Australia does not print bar code images or provide you with the digital bar code files. As a GS1 Strategic Alliance Partner, Matthews can help you put your bar code on your product once you have your barcode number.

Want to know more about barcodes? Visit our FAQs page. If you have a question that isn’t answered there, please contact us and we’ll answer your question and add it to the website.

Barcodes need to be scannable every time. See this quick guide to proper barcode quality and grading, while the increasing influx of shelf-ready packaging (SRP) onto shelves is another reason why your barcodes need to meet the grade.

Mark Dingley
Mark Dingley is Chairman of the Australian Packaging and Processing Machinery Association (APPMA) and is the CEO at Matthews Australasia. With 20+ years of experience in the product identification industry and the wealth of knowledge gained from working closely with industry associations in developing and implementing standards & best practice, Mark is able to assist manufacturers with a range of issues from getting real-time visibility of their production line, improving automation, establishing quality assurance using machine vision to selecting the best fit technology for coding and labelling applications. Mark Dingley's LinkedIn Profile
Mark Dingley

by Mark Dingley

Mark Dingley is Chairman of the Australian Packaging and Processing Machinery Association (APPMA) and is the CEO at Matthews Australasia. With 20+ years of experience in the product identification industry and the wealth of knowledge gained from working closely with industry associations in developing and implementing standards & best practice, Mark is able to assist manufacturers with a range of issues from getting real-time visibility of their production line, improving automation, establishing quality assurance using machine vision to selecting the best fit technology for coding and labelling applications. Mark Dingley's LinkedIn Profile

2 thoughts on “Behind the ‘beep’: how to use a barcode

  1. Pingback: Your essential guide to creating shelf-ready packaging (SRP) retailers and consumers will love

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