Take the first item you see and look at the back of the labelling: you will probably see a barcode. Almost all products manufactured in South Africa has a barcode at the back and we all know that when the cashier swipes it makes a bleep-bloop sound when it goes through the till, but do you actually know what the purpose of a barcode is? If you don’t, there is no need for you to feel bad. Most people have no idea what the barcode is there for nor do they know how it is generated.

Companies all over the world make use of the barcode system in order to keep track of their products and to increase their profit margins. They are used in the retail industry to assist in inventory control, ISBN codes are used when selling books, ITF-14 codes are used in the medical industry in order to buy in bulk, and Snapscan is even making use of QR codes, which are barcodes in their own right. Each type of product has its own unique barcode in order to trace it back onto the system.

But how does it work? Let’s break it down.

The barcode explained

There are two different varieties of the standard barcode that is used on the products we find on shelves at the supermarket. The one is an EAN-13 code which consists out of 13 digits and the second is a UPC code which is only 12 digits in length. The reason for this lies in its history. When barcodes were developed in the 1970s in the United States, only 12 digits were used but as it took off all over the world, an extra digit was added in order to allow for the increasing number of codes required.

Following this move, a decision was made to give each country a different set of numbers that act as the prefix of the barcode, or in other words, assume the first 3 numbers of the barcode. South Africa’s prefix runs from 600-601, the United States is 000-139, and the United Kingdom is 500-509, just to name some examples. These numbers only show where the barcode was registered at first and not where the product was made. A Chinese company could, for example, buy a US code in order to create the illusion that the products were not made in Chine but in the USA.

The next 5-7 numbers will represent the manufacturer’s code. Let’s say ABC Retail Stores ordered a barcode from South Africa, they would receive their very own manufacturer’s code. Whenever ABC Retail Stores brings out a new product, their barcodes will have the company code as part of the list of numbers.

The next set of digits are known as the individual product code and this is usually 3-5 digits long. This is how individual products are separated from the rest. Many companies don’t actually register their individual products, but they have the option to do so.

The very last number in the barcode is known as the ‘check digit’. This number is there in order to make sure that the scanner read all the other digits correctly. The last digit is programmed with a mathematical formula which is applied to its preceding digits. If the numbers are scanned correctly, the scanner will show the check digit which shows that the barcode was read perfectly.

The formula is as follows:

3 x (digits 1 + 3 + 5 + 7) + (digits 2 + 4 + 6 + check digit) = Y.

If the answer Y is divisible by 10 then the scanner read it correctly. And you thought you don’t need math to shop.

What if I have a business?

Excellent question, even if I do say so myself. If you have a business you will use barcodes in exactly the same way, but there are a few bits of information that you need to consider before you start ordering your barcodes. It can be very daunting in the beginning, but seeing your own unique company number on a barcode is similar to holding your firstborn in your arms. Just not as warm and loving.

Many business owners have no idea what the benefits of a barcode are so it’s a good thing that this blog is being published. There are many reasons why barcodes should be adopted into companies. Firstly, they save time and money. Secondly, they minimize human mistakes and errors which leads to higher profit margins. Barcodes assist with inventory and stock control. It is so much easier to read the number of products against the code on the system. It leads to efficient payment methods which lead to shorter queues, which in turn leads to more customers being helped. It also gives your business a professional and credible reputation.

The first thing you need to know is that barcodes are regulated by a governing body called GS1. This is an international organization that governs all barcodes of all countries all over the world. Every single barcode has to be registered through them in order to be deemed valid and legal to use in the retail industry. Once you get this barcode, it is yours for life. It has absolutely no expiry date at all. Every product that you manufacture for life will have the barcode on that belongs to you.

There are different types of barcodes and you need to know which one would be best for your product or business. Retail products use the UPC-barcode or the EAN-13-barcode, discussed above. As mentioned, books make use of ISBN barcodes which you need to apply for at the National Library of South Africa. If you make use of Snapscan, you will need a Quick Response code designed. Other items that are bought in bulk need a special kind of code that is known as case barcodes or box barcodes. These are optional and not all retailers make use of them.

The number of barcodes that you will need will depend on the number of different items that you want to sell. You will need a separate and individual barcode for every variety of product that you sell. If, for example, you sell mugs of two different designs and two different sizes, you will then need 4 barcodes.

Keep sizing in mind when you place your barcode. An ideal size is 40mm by 30mm. You can go smaller or bigger in size, but it is important that you test whether or not it will be picked up by the scanner.

Remember that your barcode will be blank when it is sent to you. As soon as you approach a retailer and they agree to stock your product, they will give you a product information sheet that will provide them with all the information they need from your side. The product will be registered on their system and it will be linked to the unique barcode. When your product is scanned, your company will be credited with the sale.

Now that you know how barcodes work and how much work goes into it, maybe you’ll be inspired to start your own exciting company in the near future.


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