‘5 Simple Steps to Getting Your Barcodes Printed,
(for Online Merchants)1
If you’ve never had the need to use barcodes before, the process of getting one onto your product and functioning correctly can seem like a bit of a hurdle.
The technicalities behind barcodes can lead to a very deep rabbit trail indeed. Although barcodes for retail packaging really are quite easy to understand and the process of getting a barcode onto your product doesn’t have to be a daunting one and can be made easy.
This simple guide will give you the ‘online merchant’s’ very basic steps to getting your fully functional barcode onto your product.
But first, why do we even need a barcode in the first place?
Barcodes are used in retail or any industry where data (usually a combination of letters and numbers) is needed to be entered repeatedly into a computer system. The barcode is simply a way of shortcutting the speed of data entry into a system and just as importantly a method of removing potential errors, at the point of what would have previously been a ‘manual’ data entry process.
The barcode, usually comprising of printed vertical lines of different thicknesses (hence the ‘bar’ in the ‘code’ or ‘pixel data’for codes such as the QR code), each bar thickness in the barcode (or pixel in a QR code) represents a piece of data, whether it be the specified number or letter.
Without getting into the ‘uber technical’ spiel, its the barcode readers job (or scanner) to recognize the line thickness of each bar making up the barcode.
The barcode scanner reads and decodes the line thickness of each bar. The data is then translated back to the computer system as the appropriate digit.
That’s how this..
ends up as this..
The big companies who produce millions of printed barcodes (like Unilever and Proctor & Gamble for example), will make considerable investment into their barcode quality control and you will also need to make sure that YOUR barcodes scan correctly.
Although you definitely won’t need to make anything like the kind of investment these companies do, unless you’re one of them!
Imagine printing 10 million labels with barcodes that don’t scan due to a tiny discrepancy in the printing of the line thickness (or there’s an issue with the quality of paper the barcode is printed on and it won’t scan) –yes that would be a rather big Oops wouldn’t it!
So, in order to prevent such mishaps there are certain steps you can take to ensure that YOUR barcodes do what they’re supposed to do and that they’re up to standard.
Anyone who’s able can apply these simple ‘barcode basics’ even without the budget of a large corporation. (that IS good news!)
To begin let’s take a look at a few different ways you can get hold of your barcode numbers..
Option a. Buy a membership to GS1, the worlds authority on barcodes. Along with your annual license fee you’ll inherit your minimum purchase of barcode numbers included with your membership. Of course this is the most trusted method of obtaining your barcodes – direct from the worlds central database.
Option b. Delegate the process to your printer. There are some printers that specifically advertize barcode printing. If you DO go down this route and your printer (or packaging designer) does specialize in barcodes, you can ask your printer to source your barcode for you.
If you delegate the sourcing of your barcodes it will still ultimately be your responsibility to ensure that your barcodes scan correctly. We’ll get to that in step 4.
Option c. The third option is to buy your barcodes from another companies ‘surplus’ barcodes. Some companies who are already registered with the GS1 openly advertise and resell the surplus barcodes allocated to them, which they don’t need for their own portfolio.
You can usually get a bargain barcode this way and without the need to sign up and pay the GS1 membership fee. Although always use your due diligence to make sure the surplus barcodes really are surplus GS1 barcodes. Anything else is practically useless for ‘real world’ retail.
You’ll find a few authorized barcode resellers by searching Google although make sure you buy from a reputable company.
If you’re applying a barcode for the purpose of retail or supplying your products to retailers then the 2 main types of barcodes you’ll need to know about are..
• UPC-A (the standard barcode used for most retail products in the United States and Canada, this barcode is also recognized worldwide).
• EAN-13 (this is the standard barcode used for most retail products recognized worldwide).
These are the 2 barcode types you should chose from if you have a standard retail product, although if you need something a little different, here’s a complete breakdown of the most common barcode types and purposes..
-(using the word ‘sticker’ would have been regarded as blasphemy in one of my previous corporate positions where the term ‘self adhesive label’ was the preferred descriptive term because the amount of care and work that went into manufacturing these ‘sticky labels’ was often thought to have been overlooked. Believe it or not the printers themselves considered the word ‘sticker’ a derogatory term!.)-
Although for the purpose of this white paper, I’ll assume there are no sticky label printer ‘freaks’ reading this and we’ll simply call them ‘stickers’ –as in a label with self adhesive glue on the back, OK.. ?
So, yes stickers are the easiest way to apply a barcode. You simply have your barcode printed directly onto a sticker and your sticker would in turn be applied to your product packaging.
Label tags are another easy way to apply barcodes to your product. For example, let’s say you were printing generic label tags for assorted apparel product. The common practice would be to have your generic tags printed first and then you’d have the appropriate barcode stickers to match your product SKU applied to the tags.
This would obviously save you the need to print a unique tag for every SKU with different barcode numbers. You could simply have the barcode stickers applied to tags as and when you need them, or when you decide to order more inventory.
Of course if your product has other packaging, a printed box for example, your packaging printer could have your barcodes printed directly onto the individual product boxes.
Some products do warrant direct printing straight onto the product. This process becomes more complex using different printing techniques. This direct printing method would usually involve silkscreen printing.
For example, a glass or plastic bottle or jar with no sticky label or tag packaging might have a silkscreen barcode printed directly onto the glass or plastic. You would need to consult closely with your silkscreen printer to apply this more trickier technique.
These methods to apply barcodes at the manufacturer are all good and well although what if let’s say your manufacturer doesn’t usually use barcodes..
‘But My Product is Hand Crafted in a Small Vietnamese Village Workshop?’
Of course there’s nothing wrong with sourcing products from Vietnam OR small craft worskhops OR even small manufacturers and suppliers for that matter.
If you do source your product from a small manufacturer or supplier who hasn’t needed to apply barcodes before there’s no need to worry because you’ll still be able to print and have your barcodes applied just the same.
If you simply need only a handful of barcodes and you don’t want the expense of using an external print house, you can always print your own barcode labels using a barcode laser printer and send your finished sticky label barcodes to your manufacturer.
It might also be useful to be able to print barcodes in house, because you never know when you might need to print a spare barcode or replace a damaged one that might have been scuffed or scratched. It might also be useful to be able to generate barcode images yourself whenever you need them. I would recommend using a laser barcode printer that comes with its own barcode generating software, something similar to this one here » (by the way this is an affiliate link although you definitely don’t need to use my link..)
If you’ve ever bought anything ever, then I’m sure you’ve experienced this before yourself..
When you’re standing at the checkout of your grocery store and the cashier begins to tally up your total, have you noticed that barcode scanner make the ‘bleep’ sound as the barcode is successfully scanned?..
..as long as the barcode scanner keeps ‘bleeping’ as the barcodes pass in front of the red laser beam then the grocery checkout conveyor keeps on moving along nicely. As soon as one of those little ‘bleeping’ barcodes STOPS bleeping whilst being scanned, you know what that means..
It means the barcode failed to scan and the long line of increasingly restless shoppers waiting to checkout behind you grimace as the cashier then proceeds to enter the barcode numbers by hand, one-by-one, whilst simultaneously struggling to read the small numbers printed on the barcode label.
This is valuable retail checkout time and as I’m sure you can imagine.. ..losing checkout time and preventing shoppers from paying up their dollars for their weekly grocery shop doesn’t fair well with the retail chain’s board of directors.
Failing barcodes not only causes delays to both you and your fellow shoppers at the checkout, the entire supply chain is delayed including deliveries, inventory receiving, stock counting, distribution, retailing and wherever the barcode needs to be scanned along the supply chain – all this lost time soon ads up!
So, we know why the barcode needs to ‘bleep’ as its being targeted by the red laser beam. Here’s how to ensure its not your barcode that stops bleeping at the checkout..
1. It might sound obvious but make sure your printer checks the barcode. Some printers will have higher specification tools to check the quality and readability of barcodes. If your printer has this, ask them to use it.
Your barcodes should be applied to a flat surface, (no curved surfaces) because the laser beam from the scanner won’t read around corners, bends or curved surfaces. Have your barcode applied to a flat surface and have it tested on the finished product.
2. Keep white space. You’ll need a white space around your entire barcode border since the scanner needs to recognize that the barcode’s bars have ended by measuring the amount of white space either side of the bars. Usually a 3 to 5 millimeter minimum white space border all around the barcode would suffice.
3. Use good paper (cheap papers or substrates can have a poor quality finish and pitted surface that are difficult to recognize with the naked eye). The tiny little pits in poorer quality papers can affect how you’re barcode will read. Use good quality paper both for your production barcodes and for testing and approving your barcodes.
4. IMPORTANT! Check the barcode yourself. Once you’ve approve and ‘signed off’ on any packaging or printed material prior to going to print, means you’ve given the printer the go ahead for production.
If you fail to check that the barcode scans every time, before proceeding to print then its on your head because you’ve already signed off the proof.
If you’re printer sends you a pdf file of your barcode to approve, you’ll be able to print the pdf to check the barcode yourself. Make sure you print pdf proofs with barcodes on a laser printer.
Its important you print the pdf proof ‘to size’ and that you use a laser printer. Ink jet printers are no use for barcodes since the ink spreads as its being squirted from the ink jet nozzle and this can distort the thickness of the vertical bars.
To test the barcodes you’ll also need the use of a barcode scanner. You can pick up a ‘plug and play’ barcode scanner for as little as maybe $20 that plugs straight into your computer USB port and starts working with no technical knowledge required, like this one here » (yes this is an affiliate link although you definitely don’t need to use my link..)
5. Bigger is always better, or is it? Certainly don’t go so small with your barcode that it won’t scan. Problems arise with small barcodes when the print is so small and the bars are so close together that the scanner is unable to distinguish the bars from each other. This would cause an instant scan failure.
When it comes to barcodes, bigger is usually better (to a certain extent).
On the other hand you don’t want to go too big because you’re handheld barcode scanner needs to be able to fit the entire barcode width in its laser beam sight.
Implement common sense when deciding on the size of your barcode although testing the proof with your own handheld scanner is key to ensuring your barcode scans at the checkout.
6. Use ‘standard’ colors. Rainbows maybe nice to look at whilst walking out to the park although when it comes to barcodes a practical use of colors is recommended.
You’ll definitely be safe with the traditional ‘black and white’ barcode although if you really do have a special need to use colors on your barcode project then below you’ll find a chart of colors that are generally considered ‘good and bad’ colors to use for barcodes..
“You Haven’t Mentioned Truncation Yet, What About Truncation and What the
Heck is it?”
One last thing I mention want to mention is about truncating your barcode. Again if your designer or printer is taking responsibility for your barcode then you have no need to concern yourself about this although it might be useful to know anyway.
Truncating simply means to put it bluntly ‘chopping off the top’ to make your barcode ‘fit’ into the available space on your product and/or packaging.
Sometimes if you’re limited for space on your packaging or design you might need to truncate your barcode.
Here’s an example of a 100% size barcode..
Here’s the same barcode truncated by approximately 30% to fit a limited space on the packaging..
Truncating is different to ‘rescaling’ since you’re literally chopping off the top part of the barcode. Scaling on the other hand is to ‘resize’ the entire barcode. If you need to resize rather than simply ‘truncate’ then make sure you resize to scale to keep the vertical bar widths in scale also.
Before we proceed to the last and final ‘barcode briefing’ step, let’s take a look at some rather interesting and creative designs using barcodes, (be warned that using complex designs should be reserved for the barcode designer ‘ninjas’ only. Its always best to play safe with your barcode for functionality. The aesthetics definitely come second with barcodes).
Ooh la la, look at these ‘Pretty Barcodes’
OK so those are some really cool, creative and advanced ways to use barcodes in those designs above although if you only need to get going with a straight forward barcode for the purpose of selling your product, then here’s a link to the GS1’s guide to barcode placement (there’s no point in me writing all this out here because you can check your product type in this guide directly from GS1 and it should tell you where barcodes are usually located on your type of product and if the link moves you can search Google for ‘GS1 barcode placement’)..
Ok so that’s it! By now you should have at minimum a foundational knowledge of how to get your barcode printed and your products out there with barcodes that ‘bleep’.