Barcodes are much abused by a hugely important aspect of retail, especially eCommerce. They (should) uniquely identify products and are a vital part of the process of listing products and processing orders.

This article looks at the advantages of using barcodes and the pitfalls that can arise.

Types of Barcodes

Barcodes come in several flavours. The main ones are EAN (European Article Number – 13 characters) and UPC (Universal Product Code – 12 characters).  In the UK EAN is most used.

Sometimes barcodes are less than the specified number of characters and these missing digits can be shown as proceeding zeros e.g., 0000123456789 not 123456789. This can cause product with marketplace matching as some marketplaces require the full thirteen characters to make a match.

Barcode issuing

Valid barcodes are issued by GS1, a global standard authority. A manufacturer must buy a licence to issue barcodes for their products and digits 2 to 6 of the barcode signifies the manufacturer.

Advantages of using Barcodes

Identifying products

If you have recorded the barcode for each product in your system this can be used for identifying products during common warehouse functions such as:

  • Booking in deliveries
  • Dispatching products
  • Stock taking

Marketplace matching

Marketplaces such as Amazon, CDiscount and OnBuy are catalogue-based systems that organise products by barcode. Creating a new product will require a barcode in most categories. Similarly, to list a new product the quickest method is to search the catalogue by barcode and if a match is found specify a price and quantity.

Pitfalls of using barcodes

The problem with listing or dispatching products based on their barcode is generally due to their misuse by suppliers.

Assorted colours

Frequently products are delivered in a box of assorted designs or colours which all have the same barcode. Great for a physical shop but not so good online where customers expect to get EXACTLY the product they see in the image.

Updated/refreshed products

An updated product should get a new barcode, but suppliers frequently reuse barcodes. If the retailers is matching product by barcode, they may not realise that the product has changed and send out the new product when the customer is expecting the old product.

Incorrect issuing

As mentioned above, valid barcodes are not just a string of numbers but are issued by GS1. Some suppliers create their own barcodes as a string of thirteen numbers to avoid paying the GS1 licence fees. Whilst this may have worked in the past, these numbers will now be rejected as invalid by marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay.

Incorrect matching

Details on marketplaces are frequently wrong or give a wrong quantity. This can be an issue when matching large catalogues by barcode were checking each listing is not practical.