This article is part of a larger series on Retail Management.
Barcode labels are machine-scannable symbols that represent product codes such as UPCs and SKUs. Barcodes are used to identify and track your inventory and ring product sales. Making and implementing a barcode system will help you access product details, view your stock on hand, and accelerate your checkout process, all with the click of a few buttons.
Use our free barcode generator to make barcodes for your business:
Or, continue reading below to learn more about how to set up a proper barcoding system. We also walk you through the process in our video at the end of this article.
1. Create Your Product Codes
Product codes refer to the numeric and symbolic sequences that you assign to your merchandise. There are two major types of product codes you should know: Universal Product Codes (UPCs) and internal stock keeping units (SKUs).
Type of Product Codes
Where to Get
Product manufacturers and private label sellers
Retailers and resellers
$250 for 10 UPCs
Retailers and resellers
Make your own
The best stock coding or numbering system for you depends on the type of business you operate and your inventory tracking needs. Here we will take a more detailed look at both product coding options and the uses of each.
Universal Product Codes are globally recognized eight to 12 digit numeric-only codes that manufacturers receive when they register their products with GS1. They are compatible with most point-of-sale (POS) systems, easy to acquire, and widely recognizable.
If you make products yourself or sell private label products under your own brand, you should consider registering with the GS1 and getting UPCs. UPCs aren’t required by law, and you can certainly make and sell products without them, but there are many benefits to using UPCs, including:
- Helps protect your business’s brand from brand theft and product forgery
- Enables you to sell on Amazon―a valid UPC is required for items sold on Amazon
- Makes it easy for buyers to access information about your product online, such as product type, restrictions, or potential allergens, in the case of food items
- Can be used in a retail POS system to track inventory and speed up the checkout
Most products retailers acquire from manufacturers will already have UPCs and their corresponding barcodes attached. This is not the code you will use internally or the barcode you will scan in your POS system. This code is only for the retail supply chain.
Internal SKUs are custom alphanumeric codes of variable lengths (typically eight digits) specific to each retailer and designed to suit your business’s unique operations. With an internal SKU system, you can use letters and numbers that correspond to a systematic organization of your inventory.
For example, you might decide you want to create an SKU system for your clothing. You could make the first number stand for the department (1 for men, 2 for women, 3 for children), the second for the type of apparel (1 for tops, 2 for bottoms, 3 for accessories), the third for the color, and so on until you create a code long enough that each product has a unique sequence.
TIP: Some products might come with a pre-attached UPC and barcode. You should leave this tag attached, but add and use your own SKU for all of your internal operations. Learn how to set up a SKU system.
2. Make a Barcode for Each Product
Once you have your unique product codes set up, your next step is inputting your codes into a system that translates them into scannable barcodes. With barcode scanners, barcodes will save you from having to type in individual product codes by generating them into scannable images.
There are three simple ways to make barcodes for your products. They include:
- Online barcode generators: Some websites will translate your product codes into a barcode that you can download and save for future use. Our free barcode generator is also an example.
- Retail POS systems: The inventory management tools in these all-in-one sales, inventory, and business management systems make it easy to create a barcode based on each item’s product SKU or UPC.
- Portable barcode printers: Handheld label printers let you key in a product code to make a barcode for your labels on the spot.
You can use a barcode generator, like the one that we have at the top of the article. These are generally very easy to use. In ours, for example, you simply add your product code and select barcode type (which is determined by your specific POS and scanner), and a barcode will be generated for you.
Many retail POS systems have built-in inventory tools that make it very easy to make a barcode from your product codes. If you manage inventory in any quantity, you should consider using a POS system such as Square for Retail. It simplifies barcode label printing greatly plus streamlines all of your business activities, including sales and checkout tasks, payment processing, staff management, store performance reporting, and much more. Check it out for free.
If you are a small or mobile operation, a portable handheld barcode maker with a built-in label printer may be all you need.
A handheld barcode maker works just like it sounds. You type the code and label information into the device, like the one shown below, and it translates your code into a barcode. It even lets you customize the look of your label (adding more information like product name or pricing) and then prints your barcode and other information right onto a label.
Handheld portable barcode label printers like the one shown above cost around $90. You do have to purchase label rolls designed for the device, which adds costs depending on the quantities you need to print. However, you can hardly beat the convenience and simplicity if you need to print a limited number of barcode labels on the fly.
3. Print Your Barcode Labels
With your barcodes generated, it’s time to find a suitable means to print your labels to attach to your products. As mentioned previously, portable label makers are a great way to make and print your barcode labels. Here we will look at other options for printing your barcode labels.
Laser & Inkjet Printers
If you’re creating barcode labels using a retail POS, an online site, or another software system, you can download your barcodes, convert them to a document, and use a regular printer and label sheets to print out your barcode labels. Both laser and inkjet printers are capable of printing a diverse spread of label sizes and types.
You probably already have a laser or inkjet printer. If you don’t, you can pick up a basic model for around $50. If you need more features for your business, like a built-in scanner or fax, all-in-ones like the Epson Expression above cost around $230.
Avery is a great source for a huge selection of precut laser and inkjet label sheets that work with most POS and other inventory management systems. With them, you can print barcode labels to the exact size and quantity that you need.
Thermal Label Printers
Thermal label printers use heat to melt a ribbon of pigment into the paper they are printing on to avoid any smudging or removing of ink. This way, your printer will never run out of ink and you can print infinite numbers of labels. These are a great option if you have to print labels often or at a high volume. They are also relatively inexpensive, starting at about $60 and going up to almost $1,000.
Dymo and Zebra are top-rated names in thermal barcode label printers. Zebra, in particular, offers a variety of high-capacity label printers, including printers that incorporate radio-frequency identification (RFID) smart label technology for wireless inventory tracking and theft prevention.
As we mentioned earlier, some websites will generate labels for you. Some sites, like Online Labels, allow you to both generate and order labels.
Online Labels and similar sites sell printed sheets or rolls of the barcode labels you create on their site, but that comes with a price. Expect to pay about $20 per 100 label sheets. For that, you get 700 of the same codes, printed on ready-to-use labels. Shipping times are fast—usually arriving in three to five days—and it can be a great way to save time. Websites through which you can order labels are popular with manufacturers that need large quantities of labels but don’t want to fuss with printing labels themselves.
Video Summary: Creating Barcode Labels
For an in-depth video explanation and walkthrough for creating barcode labels watch this quick 5- minute video below.
When determining how to make a barcode, businesses should first look at the tools they already have. If you have a POS system that offers built-in barcode generators, that is your best option. If you need to quickly make a barcode for a singular event, a free online generator would be your best option.
Most retail and ecommerce businesses would benefit from using a POS system to make barcodes. In addition to easily making and printing barcodes, Square for Retail gives businesses detailed inventory tracking from the moment the product is ordered to when it is sold. These management tools help streamline your entire operation. To check it out for yourself, sign up for a free trial below.