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Everything you need to know about Barcodes

What are barcodes?

Wikipedia defines barcodes as ‘A barcode (also bar code) is an optical, machine-readable, representation of data; the data usually describes something about the object that carries the barcode. Traditional barcodes systematically represent data by varying the widths and spacings of parallel lines. Barcodes are also known as UPC codes.

Barcodes are typically applied to items to enable them to be quickly identified when read by a barcode reader or scanner. The software also enables devices such as smartphones to read barcodes.

Why use Barcodes?

Barcodes speed up the process of manually entering codes into software applications. Barcodes also greatly reduce the error factor that is inherent in any manual capture of data. They provide the ability for greater automation in many areas of commerce and manufacturing. Some of the areas that barcodes are extensively used are in Point of Sale software systems, where they improve speed and accuracy at the till point.

What can Barcodes be used for?

Barcodes are used in an ever-increasing variety of areas in everyday life. Some of the most common uses are:

  • On stock items in shops which are scanned at the till.
  • On high-value items showing their unique serial number.
  • Produced by scales for items sold by weight which are then scanned at tills.
  • Tagging assets that businesses own.
  • On books, not only to price them but to easily find them

Some other areas where barcodes are used are:

  • On baggage labels, helping airlines track luggage.
  • In hospitals, for patient identification and information such as allergies etc.
  • 2D barcodes (QR Codes) used in printed media, read by smartphones for further information on articles.
  • On airline boarding passes.
  • On trees, helping to prevent illegal logging.

Types of Barcodes

There are different kinds of barcodes for different purposes and these are called symbologies. These are standards that define the format of the barcode and how the barcode will be read by scanning devices. Some linear barcode symbologies are:

  • EAN-13 – Worldwide retail. A 13 digit numerical number with the last being a check digit.
  • EAN-8 – An 8 digit number and derived from EAN-13 for smaller items.
  • Code 39- An alphanumeric codes, with an optional check digit.

There are also industry standards, for which there may be a few symbologies. Some examples of the standards are:

  • ISBN – For books and magazines which uses EAN-13
  • ISO/IEC 16388 – Various – Code 39.

Barcodes on stock items

Each barcode on a stock item should be unique to that item. In order to control this, barcodes are governed by GS1 which is an organisation that has multiple member organisations globally. These GS1 Barcodes members allocate barcodes to companies and these are usually paid for with an annual subscription.

Implementing Barcodes in your business

There are a few very important questions that initially need to be answered. The answers will define the type of bar code you use and also what devices you will require.

  1. Are the barcodes on the products you purchase from your supplier?
  2. Are the barcodes for products you manufacture in order to sell?
  3. Do you wish to use barcodes for internal codes and stock tracking?

You may have a scenario of more than one of these requirements.

Barcodes on purchased items

If you need to be able to read barcodes on products you purchase, then you will need barcode scanners that handle barcodes for the type of products you are purchasing. In most cases, these will be the EAN-13 type barcodes. You may use barcodes to speed up handling deliveries from your suppliers as well as using them when selling to your customers. You may wish to print shelf teaser labels that contain the items’ barcodes, in which can you will need a printer capable of printing this kind of label.

Barcodes on manufactured products for resale

In this case, you will need to purchase the barcodes from a GS1 member organisation. This will ensure that your barcodes are totally unique. The type of barcode you chose will depend on the type of products that you are manufacturing. You will need barcode printers, to print your labels, taking into consideration the size of the label and environment (for example, does it need to be waterproof). You will also need scanners to read your barcode labels. The most common barcode symbology used is EAN-13.

Barcodes for internal use

If the barcodes are solely for internal use and will not be read outside of your organisation, then you do not need to purchase barcodes from a GS1 member organisation. You can set up your own coding structure and codes and use a symbology such as Code 39. You will need scanners and printers which can read these barcode types.

Barcodes for external and internal use

If you use a combination of barcode symbologies in your business (for example EAN-13 and Code 39), then you must ensure that your scanners can read all the different types of barcode labels. You optimally want to be able to use the same scanners to scan all items. In the same way, you need to be able to print all the different barcode labels.

Barcode scanners

The type of scanner you require will depend on the environment and the application. Some scanners are not suited to heavy-duty or dirty conditions. The size of the barcode is also a consideration, not all scanners can read very small barcode labels. Scanners are often connected to a keyboard or USB port and there are also scanners for doing stock takes, for example, which are not connected to anything and once all the scanning is completed, the data is uploaded to a computer via a USB connection.

Barcode Printers

The type of printer will depend on the type of barcode label being printed. Some printers are not capable of printing very small barcode labels that are readable by a scanner. The print quality also needs to be good enough to be read by a scanner. Sometimes special barcode printers must be used, especially if the label has to be weatherproof. In these cases, thermal printers are often recommended. It’s very important to check that the barcode labels you print can be read by your barcode scanners.


Barcodes can improve the efficiency of your business but adequate time needs to be spent considering all the requirements, researching and sourcing the hardware you will require and planning your barcode codes and types. Making hasty ill-informed decisions may end up costing you time and money and compromising the success of the use of barcodes in your business. This article is not intended as an in-depth guide but rather as an overview of what is, a fairly complex subject.

Omni Accounts handles barcodes on stock, allowing the uses of barcode scanning in all areas where stock transactions are processed. The ability to print barcodes is also available, but bear in mind that for certain types of barcodes and printers special fonts may be required.