How to Buy a Bar Code

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Bar codes are the black on white images that translate to numbers read by laser scanners for inventory control, from medication to retail food. Since the program was implemented in the U.S. in 1973 and spread worldwide, it has produced major cost savings through increased efficiency throughout the supply chain. You cannot hope to sell one of your products through a major retailer without a bar code. Here's how to get one.

  • Decide if you need a bar code. Let's say that you run a small restaurant and patrons rave about your homemade salad dressing. They say that they'd readily buy it if you'd make it available, so you decide to start manufacturing and bottling it. Before any markets stock it, you'd need a bar code.

  • Join GS1 US. GS1, formerly the Uniform Code Council, guarantees that with its bar code system, products can be uniquely identified virtually world wide in 145 countries. After joining GS1 US, you'd get a number taking up the first 6 to 7 numbers of the 12-digit bar code that specifically identifies your company. You'll then be issued a Universal Product Code, or UPC, for each product that you sell, even if it's just a different size. The codes will then be generated as image files either to be attached to the product or incorporated into the product package design. Joining GS1 is not cheap with an initiation fee of $750 and an annual fee of $150. The annual costs are based on the number of unique products that you sell. For more information go to gs1us.org (see Resources below).

  • Another possibility is to go to an Internet-based company that will sell you a bar code for less than $100. However, you will be using that company's identification number. The rest of the 12-digit series will be unique to your product. This method is a good compromise if you are only selling one or two products, but this choice could keep you out of major American retailers because they will require a unique bar code for your own company. Shop around, as prices for this service will vary, with sliding rates for both initial fee and individual bar codes (see Resources below). Officially, GS1 prohibits subdividing UPC numbers, however if a member of GS1 joined before 2002, this provision was not in the contract, so older resellers are grandfathered in. You don't want to buy a bar code from a new company and print up a load of products only to learn that the numbers you are using were generated in violation of the source's agreement with GS1.

  • Be sure to choose a UPC bar code. This is universally accepted worldwide standard. It is possible to save more on 13-digit EAN codes, which are used primarily out of the U.s., but while all UPC codes are compatible on EAN scanners, the reverse is not true.

  • Make sure that your bar code image will work by adhering to GS1 specifications. The image of the bar code that you integrate with your packaging must have enough contrast between bars and spaces. It has to have a quiet zone, meaning a white space to the left and right of each bar code. The bar code must be of sufficient width and height for laser scanning. Any packaging such as shrink wrap cannot impede the reading the code symbols.

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