Do I need a barcode?

I have a product I want to sell to retailers – Do I need a barcode?

We are asked this question constantly and the answer is not the same for everyone as most people fall in the middle ground. The first thing that you need to understand is why the EAN product barcode exists and what its main purpose is.

The main purpose of a barcode is to uniquely identify each product with a number. For example a 200g can of Baked Beans will have a different number to a 500g can of Baked Beans. Each product that is exactly the same in every respect (Size, Shape, Colour, Weight, Model, Specification etc) will have the same number. Each variant of a product must have a different number to enable it to be distinguished from other similar products. For this numbering system to work, there must be no chance of duplicating numbers for different products from many suppliers. It is for this reason that GS-1 (Formerly known as EAN) is entrusted with registering and issuing these unique (13 digit EAN Barcode) numbers to ensure duplication of numbers will not occur. The issued 13 digit number is then represented by a barcode which is simply a graphical way of representing the numbers that can be optically read by a barcode scanner at the Point of Sale or any point in the distribution process.

Just as a font is used to change the way numbers and letters are printed for reading by humans, a barcode is a way of changing the way numbers and letters are printed for reading by barcode scanners. It is for this reason the Barcode is sometimes also referred to as a font. This barcode scanning capability provides a means of entering the number of the item very quickly rather than having to type it in using a keypad. The number that the barcode represents is also usually printed below the barcode in what is called human readable form. This is used as a backup should the barcode fail to scan ie it can be typed in via the keypad.

If you are a Wholesaler/Distributor then you probably do need an EAN barcode if you are selling to retail shops.

If this is you then read on! If you are not selling to retail stores (ie not Wholesaling) then you do not need an EAN barcode specifically. If you are a retail store you can still use barcoding, but you can use your own barcodes for this. You will enjoy many benefits from barcoding your stock and using an electronic point of sale system. You can contact us for more information.


What is an EAN barcode?

The EAN barcode actually stands for European Article Number and a properly registered number is unique throughout the world. It is this uniqueness that makes this barcode type attractive for large retailers buying goods from many suppliers. The EAN barcode is what you see on products you buy from the supermarket. If you are a manufacturer/distributor then you get a sequence of EAN barcode numbers when you join GS1. Once a member you are allocated a nine digit company prefix.

  •  The first nine digits, the EAN-UCC company prefix, are allocated by GS1 to the member company.
  •  The next three digits are the non-significant item reference number. The simplest way to allocate item references is sequentially, i.e. 000, 001, 002, 003 etc. Always number each item to the lowest level of identification. For example: size, colour, model, finish, type, style. This ensures that each item has a unique number.
  •  The last digit is always the check digit, which is calculated by a mathematical formula to ensure that the whole number is correct.


Do I need an EAN barcode for my product?

This depends on your customers requirements. If you are selling to a large retail chain then the chances are you will need an EAN barcode. This is particularly true if you are selling to a number of outlets. We have had customers who have been asked to trial products in a few stores and we have suggested they talk to the buyers/stores to see whether they will allocate them a barcode number for the trial. Sometimes this approach has allowed manufacturers to have us print them a relatively small number of barcoded labels specifically for the trial and save costs until they know the product will be included in the stores for a longer period of time.

Some smaller shops are happy to accept a barcode number that is not printed in accordance with GS1. This is quite OK as it is between you and the retailer. If they are happy with that then just let us know the number and symbology you want to use and we can supply you with the labels.


Packaging considerations?

If you are designing packaging etc for your product/s then you have other things to think about. Consideration needs to be given according to whether your product is a high volume seller or a low volume seller. Barcode labeling can be either by an adhesive label applied to your packaging or incorporated into your packaging artwork.


  1. If it is a high volume seller then you will probably want to have the barcode printed directly on the artwork/packaging. We can provide a Barcode Master, which is an EAN/GS1 barcode (sized to the correct sizing etc) in an EPS format for your printer/graphic artist to include in the Artwork. You would need one of these for each barcode number (different product) you have.
  2.  If it is a low volume seller then you could use labels and just leave a space allocation on the packaging for the label. We can then provide the Labels for you depending on your requirement.
  3. Are you considering generic packaging? Generic packaging is often seen with small items and is a low cost way of packaging different items with the one package design. What we can do for you in this case is to print labels with more information on them (as well as the barcode) to describe what is in the package. This method is a very cost effective way of “putting your toes in the water” with a few products.


Can I buy just one EAN/GS1 barcode?

Membership of GS1 gives you an allocation of many barcodes and an officially registered barcode identity. GS1 does not sell one barcode number only. Pos Shop will not sell barcode numbers as we do not believe it is ethical. We recommend that customers join GS1 to get their barcode numbers. There are internet companies who will “sell” you one barcode. Be aware that these companies are not allowed by their GS1 registration terms and conditions to sell you one of their allocated barcodes. They cannot give you a certificate of registration from GS1 in your company name (which is required by the large retail chains to authenticate the barcode). The uniqueness of this barcode only remains whilst whoever you bought it from maintains their GS1 membership or until GS1 cancels this membership because they are in breach of the terms and conditions.


Whilst EAN/GS1 membership may cost the equivalent of say 20 single barcodes bought from sources such as these online barcode sellers, you need to consider the following.

  1. What is the cost to your company’s reputation if you are forced to re-label all of your goods?
  2. What is the potential real world cost if one of your customers starts selling another product with the same EAN number. The official GS1 member will be fine but the other party will have to carry out a recall, then repackage and possible reimburse the store (remember the scanning code of conduct you see at the checkouts).
  3. If your product range and coverage in stores increases (as I am sure you hope it will) then you will end up joining GS1. All of your packaging etc you have already done will be wasted and will need to be redone.
  4. Considering the cost of having your packaging done and submitted for approval to the retailer. They then ask for the GS1 membership certificate (which you don’t have) either initially or thru the regular supplier audit process they carry out. You now must have your packaging redone, join GS1, and then say goodbye to any money you have already paid.


Be very aware of your risks involved in buying one barcode on the internet.


What are the advantages of barcoding?

Barcoding brings a number of benefits to your business whether it’s a large business or a small business.

  • Specific labeling of the goods which helps stock control, order picking etc.
  • Allows your staff to scan out orders thereby making the order process more accurate and efficient.
  • Allows any business to “play on the same stage” as the big boys.
  • If your business uses batches etc then implementation of other GS1 barcoding routines will substantially assist with tracking. See GS1 web site.
  • Opportunity to redesign packaging and branding.


What are the disadvantages?

Implementation of barcoding can be seen by manufacturers/distributors to have disadvantages.

  1. There will probably be a need to change processes in order to make sure the product has the correct barcode on it. This should really be seen as an opportunity to evaluate your current processes to see if improvements can be made to efficiency or accuracy.
  2.  There is a cost involved. Aside from the GS1 membership you need to either include the barcode in your artwork or have labels printed
  3. Repackaging of an existing product. You already have packaging done and now you have to get more designed. This is probably a good opportunity to redesign the look of the packaging anyway. If you have a large amount of packaging left to use, then we can make you barcode labels to stick onto it so it’s not wasted.


Is the price in the Barcode?

This is a very common question we are asked. In general the answer is No. The vast majority of barcodes are item identifiers only. In other words the barcode on a can of baked beans only tells the point of sale system that it is “a can of baked beans”. The point of sale system then looks up the price of “baked beans” and this is then displayed and used. The price is entered in the back office of the supermarket into their computer system before they put the product on the shelf for you to buy.

The only exceptions are barcodes applied to products sold by weight. When you go to the Deli at your supermarket they wrap up your purchase and place a barcode label on it. This is a special EAN label which does include the price. Next time they do this, look at the price and the barcode number, you should be able to see the price included in the numbers.


What are the potential problems you might have?

Generally if you go to reputable company involved in the barcoding industry then you should not have any problems. On occasion you will encounter problems though so let’s look at that.

  1. My barcode doesn’t scan. One reason this can happen if you don’t allow enough white space on both sides of the barcode. Another reason is that the barcode is not printed within tolerances. If we provide you with a Barcode Master then the printer should print them at the same size we provide them. If we provide you with labels they will be at least the min size specified by GS1 (unless you have specifically requested otherwise). Ideally barcodes should be black on white. Other colours will work though and some colours simply will not work at all. See table below (from GS1 site). The red areas illustrate what the barcode scanner sees whilst the middle section shows what your eye sees.barcode_details_ean-13
  2. My barcode fails the verification tests. This often is the same as above. The difference is that barcode scanners are built with a tolerance for barcodes printed out of specification whilst the verifiers are built to test for compliance with the specification. Barcode scanners also cannot measure the height of the barcode which also may be a point of failure. Pos Shop is able to carry out verification tests for you and provide a report.
  3. The retailer is rejecting my barcode number. The most common reason for this is a non official barcode number. See the paragraph on “Can I buy just one barcode?” above.


I’ve got my number now what do I do?

Ok, you’ve got your barcode number what do I do now.

Decide whether you want the barcode on your packaging or as a label…

  • …on your packaging – Contact us to get a barcode master done for the printer/graphic designer.
  • …as a Label – Contact us to get some barcode labels organised for you. Costs vary depending on volume.
  • The packaging is a label eg bottle – Contact us for quote


Useful Links

  • GS1 web site
  • Advanced PDF guide to GS1 barcoding and guidelines – gs1guidelines.pdf