Barcodes 101: Just-in-time Inventory for Small Businesses

barcodes painting
Photo Credit: Chiara Marra via Compfight cc

If you run a retail or product-based business, your primary focus or obsession is likely to be quality and customer service. Or maybe it’s getting your message out there with great marketing and turning first-time buyers into loyal fans.

But just as important is a back office system that allows you to track exactly what inventory you have on hand, and what state it’s in. The more efficient your stock system is, the more attention you can pay to growing your business. Barcodes can be a liberation, really! They will make your operations much more efficient and will make shopping much faster and a better experience for your customers.

Barcodes are everywhere

Probably most items you buy are now inventoried using a barcode, says Technology Student, a resource site that details the various parts of a barcode. When you purchase an item from any store, you’ll notice a label with thin, black lines across it, along with a series of different numbers. This label is scanned by a cashier, and the item’s description and price automatically come up on a screen.  Although most of us think of this as simply a way to price items in the grocery or department store, this process is becoming more common in other facets of a consumer’s life, such as car rental companies, luggage check-ins and even acquiring a driver’s license, according to National Barcodes. Prescriptions, library books and other items also use barcodes. Within a business, barcodes can be used to track where an item is in-house, whether it’s being assembled (say, a pair of eye glasses) or where the item is located in a warehouse. In fact, your local dry cleaner is probably now using barcodes.

How Barcodes Work

Each number on a barcode has special meaning, according to a prominent large business barcode technology company called Zebra Technologies. If you look closely at a barcode, you’ll see the variations in the bar widths, and the spacing of each different type of bar. All of these differences are unique identifiers that make each product type unique. The barcode reader instantly scans this code and identifies it more quickly than your fastest salesperson can!

As your inventory increases, and the variety of your inventory expands, barcodes can help you keep accurate records, since you only have to scan a code instead of looking up an item. Barcodes are especially helpful in maintaining quality when sales increase and quickly spotting the root cause of any inventory issues. When all of your systems are tied together with barcodes, you’ll be instantly notified when inventory is running low and needs to be reordered, and you’ll be notified if there are any repeat problems. The dymo barcode and label printing software offered by Shopify is one example of such a barcode inventory system.

Lovely labels

If you’re looking for a simple system that you can set up yourself, there are a number of options. Choose a pre-designed label that meets your needs, and then do your research to find a printer that’s capable of producing barcodes and supports the specific symbology that you’ve selected. Not surprisingly, a barcode printer can’t produce labels with any blurring or bleeding of the lines, which would make the code illegible. In fact, barcode printers should be able to print to the thousandth of an inch. Once you’ve invested in a great printer that produces high-quality, crisp barcodes, this part of your business becomes a no-brainer. Choose carefully and be picky; high-quality operations and hardware are key.

We have the technology

Many common laser and ink-jet printers are capable of producing barcodes, but they need to be programmed to do so. These printers often do not have native support for barcode symbologies and need to be upgraded with additional fonts or programming to support barcoding. They also lack many of the special features that provide barcodes with excellent print quality. One barcode printer that is a workhorse and is very small-business friendly is the LabelWriter 450, which can also print shipping labels if necessary.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the printer you choose must work with your computer system. Pick a system that is quick and easy to set-up. There are lots of out-of-the-box solutions; find one that matches where your business is today and where you want to steer it in the future.  A scalable system that you don’t have to think about for years to come will improve your business and free you up to focus on building your business!

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