Documentation is indispensable in commerce. Without a reliable data recording system, there’s no way we can ensure business accountability, see purchasing patterns, gauge success, minimize product fails and predict the market’s direction. In a highly wired country like the US, all these things must be done in a snap, and the barcode’s impact on efficiency can never be understated.

Here, we shall explain some basic things about the barcode system. The information about it can be overwhelming, as it encompasses many scientific disciplines. We shall try to simplify all that and leave only what’s relevant.


What is a Barcode?

A barcode is a set of machine-readable printed bars of variable thickness. On its own, it means nothing, but it becomes meaningful when linked to a unique set of data that people can understand. The information that it encodes depends on the organization using it and its purpose, which is why different deciphering systems exist today.

Example of a barcode

How Does a Barcode Work?

You know how barcode scanners emit laser light? Their sensors are actually keeping track of what happens to those rays. When light hits a barcode, two things happen—dark colors absorb light, whereas lighter shades deflect it toward the scanner.

Barcodes are printed differently so that they give off different light interaction patterns. Such patterns are paired with arbitrarily assigned numeric and alphanumeric character strings. The latter are, in turn, linked to unique data sets, e. g. product information, patient identity, book publication details, etc.

Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
Number encoded by the barcode
Step 4
Product encoded by the number

Different systems have their own error-checking mechanisms to make barcodes tamper-proof. The scanner beeps if the system validates the barcode. An erroneous pattern will not be recognized and will either fail to activate the scanner or cause it to flash an error message. Meanwhile, a human operator can detect a wrongly placed barcode when it gives different product information on scanning.

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All of the computer’s activities depend on the speed of light—a mind-boggling 671 million miles per hour—and subatomic movement. It explains why barcoding is much faster than typing a product’s price on a cash register.

What are the Factors Affecting Barcode Scannability?

Since light physics is at the very heart of barcode scanning, it should be easy to understand why the following elements would affect readability:




The bars need to be as distinct from the spaces as possible, so it matters what print and background colors you choose.

If the bars are printed in too light a hue, the scanner will have a hard time sensing their presence. Likewise, if the background is too dark, the computer may not distinguish the bars from the spaces. That is why, in How Startups Can Create Professional-Looking Shipping Labels, we suggested optimizing contrast by printing barcodes in black and on a white label.

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Print Sharpness

Barcodes need to be printed precisely, as the wrong bar or space thickness can give rise to reading errors. A slight misprint can result in the retrieval of the wrong information. Therefore, printers must have the right resolution to create sharp barcodes.


Barcode Size 

Size affects print resolution. Most retail barcodes are big enough to be printed clearly using 203-dpi printers, e. g. standard Zebra and Rollo units. However, tinier ones, such as those employed in healthcare and small product packages, are better made with higher-resolution printers, as some require 600 dpi.

Barcodes are scalable. However, make sure that the height-width ratio does not change upon adjustment. Doing so can reduce scanning accuracy.



Presence of Smudges

Smudges will also affect barcode appearance and scannability. This is why direct thermal technology has been in use for printing barcodes as early as the 1970s. Smeared images usually result from inkjet and dot-matrix printing, whereas laser printers are cost-inefficient. Direct thermal printers are just the perfect gadgets for creating barcodes, as they do not need smear-prone and pricey consumables.


Positioning and Visibility on Packages

Barcodes do not have to be placed in the most prominent areas, as those are reserved for primary and shipping labels. However, they do have to avoid folding around edges and corners to prevent distortion and reading errors.

When securing packages, keep in mind that covering labels with plastic film may affect barcode scannability. Use only clear, transparent plastic if you want better protection for your package labels.

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Number of Dimensions

This simply refers to the presence of horizontal and vertical components. If a barcode only has a horizontal or vertical component, it is classified as one-dimensional. If it has both, then it is two-dimensional.

Fresh produce usually bears one-dimensional barcodes. QR codes, which are now becoming popular among online shoppers, are two-dimensional. 

Laser-light scanners suffice for one-dimensional barcodes. Meanwhile, more complex sensors, such as those incorporated in camera phones, are needed for two-dimensional variants. We shall discuss two-dimensional barcodes in our future blogs.

A QR code being scanned by a camera phone



A barcode’s orientation also affects readability. For example, older scanners can read a horizontal barcode in only one direction, from left to right. Since barcodes are designed to have the start and stop segments distinct from one another, it has become possible to make scanners read in multiple directions.

The accuracy of this cipher system depends on the interplay of these factors. Remember that the next time you print a barcode.

What are the Typical Uses of Barcodes?

Barcodes have numerous applications. They are normally used in the following settings:



Warehousing and Inventory Management

Barcodes are paired up with information about a product’s characteristics, quantity and location. They help keep tabs of stocks and their movement inside a warehouse.



Modern carriers register shipments through cipher systems. A unique barcode is assigned to each package and its attributes. Encoded information includes origin, destination, service class, date sent, weight, delivery date etc. For palletized goods, critical data include quantity, batch number, container ID and lot number. Recording all these details makes tracking possible.



Point of Sale

Barcodes help retrieve product information quickly at checkout counters. Prices and quantities can be easily adjusted when necessary. Stocks are automatically updated once a product is sold.



Employee, student and visitor information can be encoded in these cipher systems. Badge barcodes are widely used in security systems throughout the country.



Health facilities need to keep accurate patient information and be able to retrieve them on demand. Besides personal particulars, critical data include potentially long patient histories, food and drug allergies, insurance and payment information, care providers’ identities, etc. 

A patient bracelet bearing a barcode



Barcodes allow libraries and booksellers to keep track of publications added to and taken from their collections. By integrating this with a user information encoding system, libraries can trace borrowed and returned books, and merchants can speed things up at the point of sale.

Barcodes affect numerous daily activities. Many conveniences that people enjoy today are largely due to these ciphers.

What are the Benefits of Barcode Systems?

Business owners gain a lot from using barcode systems. The most important advantages are explained below.


They Let You Sell in Big Retail Joints in America

You don’t need barcodes to sell handicrafts at a local store, but you will need them once you decide to market your goods in giant retail places. The likes of Macy’s, Walmart and Target require sellers to get a Universal Product Code (UPC) for their merchandise. Depending on the product, Amazon may require barcodes other than or in addition to the UPC.


They Facilitate Transition to International Trade

The UPC’s international version is the European Article Number (EAN), also known as the International Article Number. In the US, when you register a product for a UPC, it’s easy to get an EAN for it too.


They Make Tracking Shipments Easy

Each major carrier uses several barcode systems in their operations. The tracking number is probably the most recognizable to customers. Other cipher systems are used to enhance shipment traceability.

We have already explained the IMpb, a special USPS barcode, in our blog, The Benefits of Printing Postage Online. It increases package traceability inside the US and entitles small business owners to postage discounts.



They Promote Efficiency

Barcodes speed up many tasks in the daily course of business, including:

Making Inventory

These ciphers streamline information concerning product supplies, location, stocking, offloading, restocking, redirections, etc. Efficiency prevents supply chain disruptions.

Repricing Items

In the old days, this activity required writing or typing new tags and attaching them to each item. Nowadays, barcoded packages let sellers change the price for identical products with just a few keyboard clicks. The new price automatically shows up every time the cipher is scanned, and no new tags need to be attached.

At the Point of Sale

Manually inputting prices on a cash register is not only slow but also prone to human error. Both problems are solved by simply scanning a barcode, which consistently and accurately retrieves product information. No one has to wait hours at the checkout line anymore.

Generating Sales Reports

Sales are automatically recorded by using these ciphers. Business owners can now quickly generate sales reports. This lets them easily monitor popular and less popular merchandise, as well as time-dependent market fluctuations.

Generating Sales Report

These are just some of the remarkable ways that barcodes save time. Keep in mind that productivity is crucial to business success.


They Enhance Workplace Security

Barcoded ID cards let security personnel quickly and accurately identify the people coming in and out of an establishment. Fraudulent credential use can be easily detected, protecting both businesses and customers. Problematic encounters can be resolved fast. 


They Shield Establishments from Theft

These ciphers help safeguard businesses from theft in several ways.

They Help Detect and Deter Shoplifting

Barcodes can prevent price tag-swapping, which allows shoplifters to swipe an expensive item at a much cheaper price. The crime can be detected when barcode scanning shows a non-matching product description. 

They Protect Against Inside Jobs 

Integrated security and inventory systems let businesses detect warehouse theft, identify the perpetrators and recover the stolen items. Office equipment and supplies can also be protected by barcoding.

They Help Retrieve Stolen Cargo

Barcoded serial numbers can serve as tamper-evident tools. They can help business owners recover stolen cargo that would have otherwise been sold in the black market.

Barcode systems protect businesses from warehouse theft

From all these, we can see that barcodes help businesses protect people and property.


They Help Improve Patient Care

Disorganized health recording systems are known to be risks for medical errors, which kill thousands of Americans every year. Barcodes help ensure that patient data is documented correctly, and the right treatments are given consistently.


They Positively Impact the Environment 

Information is recorded in high-capacity hardware, so less paper is used and less waste is produced. Barcodes, therefore, help protect the environment.


They are Cost-Effective

Barcode systems significantly reduce human error, paper and electric consumption, work hours, and theft losses. This makes them more cost-effective than manual recording.

Barcodes shape many industries, which have now grown dependent on them. They help businesses thrive in a fast-paced world.

What Barcode Systems Do US Retailers Often Encounter?

In the US, both one- and two-dimensional barcodes are widely used. For now, we shall focus on the one-dimensional variants that business owners frequently encounter.

Each of the barcodes below belongs to a system that assigns different meanings to bars and spaces. They are also acquired differently, either from an external standards-setting organization or generated within the establishment that uses them.


Universal Product Code-A

UPC barcode allocated to Bath and Body Works' 8-oz Twilight Woods Lotion

The UPC is one of the most important cipher systems in US retail, as mentioned previously. Bars and spaces represent only numbers, from 0 to 9. No letters or punctuations are encoded. The UPC-A belongs to this system and is the most commonly used.

In the UPC-A, the barcode is the machine-readable form of the 12-digit number underneath, which is the product’s Global Trade Item Number (GTIN). The latter encodes information about merchandise in the Global Standards 1 (GS1) registry. GS1 is an organization that sets business communication standards for over 100 member countries. We shall talk about how to get a UPC in the next blog.


European Article Number-13

The EAN allocated to Bath and Body Works' 8-oz Twilight Woods Lotion

As mentioned above, the EAN is the international version of the UPC. Like UPCs, EANs are also purely numeric and obtained from GS1. The EAN-13 has a 13-digit GTIN. For GS1-US-registered merchandise, EAN-13 is simply the UPC-A with zero added as the leading digit. 

Shorter versions of the UPC and EAN exist for tagging different products and packages, but we will discuss them in future blogs.


International Standard Book Number

For books and e-books, the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is used. It identifies the author and other publication details. Libraries and book distributors use it. Amazon requires booksellers to include both the UPC and ISBN in their listings. The ISBN barcode is accompanied by a 13-digit, purely numeric string, and is obtained from the International ISBN Agency.


GS1 Databar

This barcode symbolizes a 12- to 13-digit, purely numeric sequence, which is also a GS1-assigned GTIN. It has two types, differing based on size and omni-scanner readability.

A sales clerk uses an omni-scanner at the checkout counter

An omni-scanner emits laser light from different directions. By comparison, older models, e. g. the pen-type and hand-held scanners, emit light in only one direction. Both are still used at the point of sale, but omni-scanners work faster and are easier to use, so they have largely replaced old devices.

Expanded GS1 databars require omni-scanners and are created for point-of-sale scanning. Compact GS1 databars cannot be read by omni-scanners and are not used at the point of sale. GS1 databars are generally used in healthcare, selling fresh produce, printing coupons and other aspects of retail.



A pharmacode on a box of aspirin

As its name suggests, the pharmacode is used in the drug industry to tag bulk shipments. These ciphers are designed to remain scannable despite color and printing errors.

Pharmacodes are purely numeric, with each component representing a number from 3 to 131070. There are guidelines for assigning these codes, but they are generally allocated by the pharmaceutical company that uses them, not by an external organization.


Plessey and MSI-Plessey

Example of a modified Plessey barcode

The Plessey Code is a system developed by a British company that it was named after. It is based on the hexadecimal system, which uses numbers 0 to 9 and letters A to F. The MSI-Plessey, a modified system created by electronics leader MSI, uses only numbers from 0 to 9. Both have variable lengths and are mainly used in warehousing, retail shelving and library tagging. These barcodes are not standardized but are determined by the establishments that use them.


Code 39

A Code 39 barcode on a badge

Code 39 is versatile and has a variable length. Older versions encoded a limited set of characters, but the newer one has been expanded to include all ASCII codes. It is used in many settings, including security (ID barcodes), inventory and various industrial and government applications.

This system’s main setback is that it is usually long, so it cannot be used on tiny items, such as lab micro-vials. Code 39 is not allocated by any external organization.


USPS codes

US business reply mail showing different barcode types

These are codes that follow different systems but are all assigned and used by the USPS. They include the IMpb, Facing Identification Mark, PLANET and POSTNET. They generally enhance mail traceability.


Code 128

Code 128 FNSKU labels

Like the modified Code 39, Code 128 is also based on ASCII characters. However, Code 128 is more compact, so it can be used for tagging small items. Different organizations have their own adaptations of this system.

Code 128 applications are found in freight forwarding and inventory. Amazon’s FNSKU, used for stock monitoring at their fulfillment centers, is based on Code 128. Standards-setting bodies, like the ISO, GS1, and IEC, also have distinct versions of this system.


Interleaved 2 of 5

An ITF-14 barcode

This barcode type is also called the ITF. In this system, two in every five bars or spaces are wide. Each component stands for a digit pair, so ITFs are always even-numbered. They are used for labeling 35-mm films and higher packaging levels.

GS1 uses an ITF-like system, the ITF-14, which encodes a 14-digit GTIN. It is assigned to large product packages, e. g. those enclosed in stretch wrap, shrink film or boxes.



Codabar example

The Codabar was developed by logistics leader Pitney Bowes. It can be read accurately, even if it is printed in dot matrix. FedEx is the most prominent Codabar user, which it prints on air bills and other tracking documents. Other applications are found in libraries, credit cards, blood banks, photo labs, government inventories, etc.

The Codabar is alphanumeric, encoding the numbers 0 to 9 and several other symbols. They are not standardized but are allocated by the user.

These are the most commonly encountered one-dimensional barcodes in US retail. Remember that, aside from having dissimilar codes, they also vary in size, requiring different-size direct thermal labels.

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American retail values efficiency, making barcoding an indispensable business tool. This electronically based system brings many empowering advantages to small businesses. We’ve just explained a few things about it, including the different types used in the US. Once again, we hope that we have imparted information that will bring huge value to your establishment.

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