A Universal Product Code, or U.P.C., is a common sight on any retail package. The first barcode was introduced over 40 years ago on a pack of Wrigley's gum, and as self-checkout has grown in popularity even consumers have become accustomed to looking for them. More than 5 billion barcode products are scanned around the world every day.
A barcode is required on your labels to stock your products on retail shelves. So unless you plan to only sell your goods in small quantities at a Farmer's Market, you are going to need to generate unique barcodes for each of your products.
Barcodes For Labels, Where To Begin?
Step one is a paid membership to gatekeeper for all things barcode. You will need to head over to the GS1 US website and pay to join. Every retail barcode in the United States and 107 other countries is assigned by GS1. As a paid member of GS1 you will receive your own unique identification number, which will appear in the first part of your 12-digit UPC number.
Prices for membership vary depending on how many of your products will require a barcode. The minimum membership cost is $250, plus an annual renewal fee of $50, in order to generate U.P.C.s for up to 10 products. Initial fees and annual renewal fees both increase for each upper tier, into the thousands of dollars for maximum plans. GS1 recommends identifying your current and future barcode needs as step one. You can increase your membership level at any time, but they recommend planning ahead to potentially save yourself time and money down the road.
When you join GS1, you are not buying barcodes. Your paid membership gives you access to their proprietary U.P.C. creation tool, called Data Driver®, which allows you to create your own barcodes. As part of your membership you will also have access to reference, support, and educational materials. If needed, GS1 will also refer you to U.P.C. professionals to create your barcodes for you.
Cheaper Barcode Alternatives, and Why to Avoid Them
While there are discount services offering budget barcodes, we do not recommend them to our clients. Budget barcode solutions use the company prefix of some other company – not yours. That means the barcode will not link back to the brand owner of the product, you, which is required by many retailers.
Decoding a Barcode
U.P.C. Company Prefix: 6 to 10 digits, this is your unique company prefix as assigned by GS1, which ensures your barcode is specific to your product and cannot be confused with any other company's products.
Item Reference Number: The item reference number is assigned by you, identifying a specific product.
Check Digit: The check digit is specially calculated by using your company prefix and your item reference number, ensuring accuracy when your barcodes are scanned. GS1 offers a Check Digital Calculator to determine the final number.
Minimal Barcode Requirements and Best Practices for Labels
- The optimum color combination for barcodes is black bars with a white background.
- Barcodes are required to have dark colors for bars, such as black, dark blue, dark brown, or dark green.
- Barcode bars are required to be printed as a single line color, printed by a single imaging tool (no multi-pass printing).
- Quiet Zones are required around the barcode, where no design elements encroach on the barcode area.
- Light backgrounds are required in Quiet Zones.
- Barcode backgrounds should also be printed as a solid color with no patterns or busy areas.
- Red backgrounds are allowed (including Quiet Zones), as most scanning equipment uses a red light source and a red background color will be invisible to the scanner. This is also true of similar colors like orange, pink, peach, and some light yellows. Obviously, bars should never use these colors.
- The barcode background does not have to be printed if the label design color or label material color meets the necessary requirements.
Vanity Barcodes for Labels
More stylized or decorative barcodes, commonly called vanity barcodes, have been around for several years. Even some large retail product manufacturers like Nestle have used them. If you are planning to use a vanity barcode on your products the key is to make sure they scan accurately and consistently. You should always have your barcodes tested if you will be using non-standard designs.
Barcodes are not pretty and fitting them elegantly into label designs can be a headache for designers. With a recommended minimum height of one-half inch, small labels with limited space can suffer the most. However, it is worth keeping in mind the purely functional reason barcodes exist, and the huge expense that may be incurred by a barcode that fails to scan.
Barcodes allow retailers to track products throughout the store and change prices without retagging every single item. Barcodes that do not scan accurately or consistently could seriously irritate your retail partners, and you may end up reprinting your entire label order to fix any problems. And whether you are waiting on a grocery clerk or going through self-checkout, there tends to be a shortage of patience in a checkout line. Cleverly hidden or decorative barcodes that are hard to find or difficult to scan may frustrate consumers - including your own customers.
Standard barcodes that comply with GS1 specifications are omnidirectional to scanners, meaning they can be successfully scanned from all directions, due to the fixed relationship between the height and width of the U.P.C. This is another area where vanity barcodes can cause frustration and even failure at retail when GS1 specifications are not followed.
While GS1 does not explicitly object to vanity barcodes, many of them do not comply with published standards. This does not necessarily mean they will not scan, in fact many will scan successfully. For a fee, GS1 will test your barcodes and grade them from A to F, based on how consistently they scan. Tests are conducted with new as well as older scanning equipment, including flatbed and handheld scanners.