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Barcodes 101: Guide to Understanding Barcode Systems

Barcodes 101: Guide to Understanding Barcode Systems

April 26, 2024
Posted By
Hafez Ramlan
Title asset to the "Summer Shipping" blog post from Atomix Logistics. A small green 3D truck with a small sun floating above it portrays the hot summer sun during order transport. KW: Ecommerce, 3PL, order fulfillment, fulfillment center, summer order fulfillment, new orders, new customer, temperature, protection, packaging, eco-friendly, sustainability

Introduction to Barcodes

Barcodes are ubiquitous in various industries, serving as a simple yet powerful tool for tracking a wide range of information. From retail stores to warehouses, barcodes streamline operations, ensure accuracy in data handling, and boost efficiency. This comprehensive guide will delve into what barcodes are, how they work, and the best practices for their implementation.

Understanding Barcode Numbers and Their Global Meanings

Barcodes are more than just random sequences of lines and spaces; they are encoded to carry meaningful information. Each segment of a barcode is carefully constructed to reveal specific details about the product, with the initial digits often indicating the country where the product was registered. This coding system is not just a random assignment but follows a global standard which allows businesses and consumers to trace the origin of goods, thereby promoting transparency and trust in international trade. Here's a closer look at how this works and why it's important:

  • Country of Origin: The first two to three digits of a barcode (known as the GS1 prefix) signify the country's code where the product's manufacturer is registered. This does not necessarily mean the product was made in that country, but rather where the company that produced the product is headquartered.
  • Manufacturer Identification: Following the country prefix, the next group of digits represents the manufacturer or company itself. This unique identifier is crucial for businesses to track which specific company produced the item, essential for quality control and logistics.
  • Product Identifier: The subsequent section of the barcode is dedicated to identifying the specific product. This portion varies in length depending on the country and manufacturer codes but serves to distinguish one item from another under the same brand.
  • Check Digit:The final digit of a barcode is known as the check digit. This is a calculated number used to ensure the barcode is correctly composed. If the barcode is scanned and the check digit doesn't match what the scanner calculates it should be, it alerts the system to a potential scanning error.

Finding and Decoding Barcode Numbers

Finding a barcode number is typically as simple as looking on the product packaging where it is prominently displayed or requesting it directly from the manufacturer. Once located, the process of decoding these barcodes is essential for accessing detailed product information. This involves understanding the standardized barcode formats such as UPC (Universal Product Code) and EAN (European Article Number), which are the most commonly used barcode systems worldwide. Here's a deeper dive into how these systems work and how to decode them:

  • Universal Product Code (UPC): The UPC is widely used across the United States and Canada, comprising a 12-digit numeric code. This barcode system is essential in retail to track trade items in stores. The UPC code consists of a manufacturer identification number, an item number, and a check digit which validates the code. The first six digits are the manufacturer’s identifier, followed by five digits which are the item number, and the last digit is used for error checking.
  • European Article Number (EAN): Similar to the UPC, the EAN is a 13-digit barcode system commonly used outside of North America. It includes a country code at the beginning, which helps to identify the country of the manufacturer, making it especially useful for international trade. The rest of the barcode is structured similarly to the UPC, with a manufacturer code, product code, and a check digit.

To decode these numbers, you can use various online resources and barcode software, which not only read the barcodes but also translate them into understandable information. These tools can break down the barcode into its constituent parts, revealing data about the manufacturer, the specific item, and even batch numbers or expiration dates when available. This can prove invaluable in several scenarios

  • Product Tracking and Inventory: Retailers can use barcode information to keep track of inventory levels, manage store layouts, and optimize the supply chain logistics.
  • Consumer Information: Customers can scan barcodes using mobile apps to get more product information, compare prices, or verify the authenticity of items in stores.
  • Quality Assurance: Businesses can trace back through their supply chain for recalls, quality checks, and compliance with regulatory requirements.

Creating and Applying Barcodes to Your Products

Creating barcodes for your products is a crucial step in establishing an efficient tracking and inventory management system. The process starts with choosing the appropriate barcode format and generating the codes using reliable software or online platforms. Here's how you can go about adding barcodes to specific products, ensuring they are highly visible and easily scannable:

  • Selecting the Right Barcode Format: Depending on your needs, you may choose from various barcode formats such as UPC for retail products in North America, EAN for international products, or QR codes for more complex information needs. The choice of format influences how much information you can store and where the product can be sold.
  • Using Barcode Generation Software: Once the format is chosen, use barcode generation software or online platforms to create the barcode. These tools allow you to input the necessary data, such as product numbers and manufacturer codes, which are then converted into a barcode image.
  • Designing for High Visibility and Scannability: The barcode should be printed in a size and location on the product packaging that is easily accessible to barcode scanners. Avoid placing barcodes on edges or folds that can be obscured or distorted. The contrast between the barcode and the background should be high, typically with black bars on a white background, to ensure optimal scannability.
  • Integrating with Your Inventory System: Link each barcode with its corresponding product information in your inventory management system. This integration allows for real-time tracking of inventory levels, simplifying restocking and reducing the likelihood of out-of-stock situations.

Barcode Types: UPC Barcodes vs. Regular Barcodes

The most common type of barcode in retail is the UPC barcode, which consists of 12 numerical digits and is predominantly used in the United States. Regular barcodes, such as Code 39 or Code 128, serve different functions and are used across various industries. Understanding the specific needs of your business will guide the choice of barcode type.

UPC Barcodes:

  • Used primarily in retail across North America, UPC barcodes uniquely identify products and are vital for inventory and sales tracking.

Code 39 Barcodes:

  • This type encodes both letters and numbers, making it suitable for diverse sectors like manufacturing and healthcare.

Code 128 Barcodes:

  • Code 128 is compact, capable of encoding a wide mix of data, and ideal for logistics, particularly in shipping and inventory management.

Benefits of Using Barcodes in Inventory Management

Implementing barcodes in inventory management systems offers numerous benefits that enhance operational efficiency and accuracy. These simple yet effective tools revolutionize how inventory is controlled, tracked, and managed across various sectors. Here are some of the key benefits of using barcodes in inventory management:

  • Increased Accuracy: Barcodes significantly reduce the chances of human error in inventory management. The manual entry of inventory data often leads to mistakes, but scanning barcodes eliminates these errors, ensuring that data entered into inventory systems is precise and reliable.
  • Efficient Processing: Barcodes enable quicker processing of goods. Scanning barcodes is much faster than typing product details manually. This speed is critical during peak business hours and helps in managing large volumes of inventory efficiently during receiving and shipping processes.
  • Real-Time Inventory Tracking: Barcodes provide real-time data on stock levels. This instant visibility helps businesses make informed decisions about restocking and inventory distribution, minimizing the risk of overstocking or stockouts.
  • Cost Reduction: By minimizing manual tasks and reducing errors, barcodes help in lowering operational costs. Efficient inventory management also reduces the need for large safety stocks, thereby decreasing the amount of capital tied up in inventory.
  • Improved Data Management: With barcodes, inventory data is standardized and can be easily shared across various departments or even with external partners. This consistency improves the overall management of supply chain data and facilitates seamless integration with other data management systems.
  • Enhanced Security: Barcodes also play a crucial role in security by tracking movements of inventory within a facility. This tracking helps prevent theft and misplacement, ensuring that inventory levels are maintained accurately.
  • Scalability: Barcode systems are scalable, meaning they can grow with your business. Whether you're expanding the number of products you offer or increasing the size of your operation, barcode systems can adapt to handle increased volumes without significant additional costs.

Can You Create Barcodes Without Numbers?

While unconventional, it is possible to create barcodes without numbers, primarily used with proprietary scanning systems. However, for universal compatibility and ease, numerical barcodes are recommended. They ensure broad usability and simplify integration into existing systems.

Choosing the Right Barcode Scanner

Selecting the appropriate scanner is crucial. Options range from simple handheld models to sophisticated systems integrated into point-of-sale (POS) systems. Factors to consider include the environment in which they will be used, the types of barcodes being scanned, and the desired speed and accuracy of scanning.

  • Assess Your Environment: Evaluate the physical conditions of the environment where the scanner will be used. For harsh conditions like warehouses or outdoor settings, rugged scanners that can withstand drops, dust, and moisture are necessary. In retail settings, lighter and more user-friendly models may be sufficient.
  • Consider the Barcode Types: Determine the types of barcodes that you will primarily be scanning. Different scanners are optimized for different kinds of barcodes, such as 1D barcodes like UPCs or more complex 2D codes like QR codes. Ensure the scanner is compatible with the barcodes you use.
  • Integration with Existing Systems: Ensure that the barcode scanner is compatible with your existing inventory management or POS system. Integration capabilities can simplify operations and avoid the need for costly software customizations or upgrades.

Best Practices for Barcode Implementation

To effectively implement barcodes, ensure your systems are compatible with the barcodes used, train staff thoroughly, and maintain your equipment properly. Regular audits and updates to your barcode system will help catch any issues early and keep your operations running smoothly.

  • System Compatibility: Ensure that your barcode scanners, software, and other system components are fully compatible with the types of barcodes you intend to use. This includes checking that your software can accurately decode and utilize the data from the barcodes.
  • Regular Maintenance: Keep your scanning and printing equipment well-maintained to avoid breakdowns and ensure consistent performance. Regular maintenance includes cleaning scanners and printers, replacing worn parts, and updating software as needed.
  • Quality Control: Implement quality control measures to ensure that all barcodes printed or attached to products are clear, accurately placed, and fully scannable. This might involve spot checks and the use of verification tools to measure barcode quality.
  • Scalability: Design your barcode system with scalability in mind. As your business grows, your system should be able to accommodate increased volumes of products and data without significant overhauls.
  • Legal Compliance: Ensure that your barcode practices comply with local, national, and international regulations, particularly if you are operating in industries with specific standards or regulations regarding labeling and tracking.


Barcodes are an indispensable tool for enhancing the efficiency and accuracy of inventory management and operational processes across a wide range of industries. By integrating barcode technology into your systems, you can streamline workflows, reduce errors, and maintain better control of your inventory, leading to improved operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. As businesses continue to evolve, the use of barcodes offers a scalable and cost-effective solution for managing vast amounts of data and keeping pace with market demands and regulatory requirements. For ecommerce brands looking to optimize their barcoding strategies, reaching out to Atomix Logistics can be a transformative step. Reach out to us today to see how our expertise in barcode solutions can elevate your business operations.

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