Dear Mr Geek,

Our nursery is looking to use barcodes with a new point of sales (POS) system.  I’ve been told that we need to purchase “GS 1” barcodes on an annual basis, and these are quite expensive.  Is there a cheaper way to get barcodes?



In the very first issue of the Green Geek – all too many years ago now – we talked about this very issue.  Barcodes are a confusing subject to many people: mostly because unscrupulous sellers of “article numbers” purposely complicate the issue.  Here’s the thing: barcodes are simply a way of printing information so that a computer can read it with a scanner.  “Article numbers” are what organisations like GS1 actually sell – not the barcode.  “But what does that actually mean?”  I hear you asking!

To really understand this issue, we need to first define what a barcode does.  You can think of the barcode as a printable alphabet that encodes information.  Just as the English alphabet encodes information (words), so too does a barcode.  If I write down the text, “Roses are red,” in English, everyone can see the individual characters, and we humans have been trained to understand what this actually means.  We can decode the English alphabet just by looking at it. (Which is pretty amazing!)

However, the English alphabet is very difficult for computers to read at high speed.  Barcodes are away to write the text in such a way that a computer can quickly scanned the information.  We can create a barcode that reads, “Violets are blue,” and when it is scanned the computer will literally get that text, just as if a person had typed it in from the keyboard.

And here is the kicker: barcodes are free.  Just like the English alphabet is free.

So why have you been told that you need to buy or rent a barcode?

Barcodes were originally introduced as a way of tracking products from manufacture to warehousing to retail and then finally to point of sales.  This is generally called the “supply chain/” During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a huge effort globally to improve the supply chain on a global level by uniquely identifying every type of product.  This would mean that retailers could guarantee that the barcode pre-printed on any particular product’s packaging would be unique to that product.  

In order for this to be successful, there needed to be a global master list of these unique numbers.  Much like cars are identified by their unique number plate, products needed to be licensed with a unique number: often called an “article number” or “unique product identification number.”  Back in the good old days, an organisation known as EAN International EDIFACT (European Article Numbering /  Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport)  was set up to manage the allocation of these unique numbers.  Manufacturers would apply to EAN and receive as many numbers as they required, and EAN would make sure that no two manufacturers got the same number.  Of course, EAN required money to manage all of these millions of numbers, so it charged a nominal amount to organisations.

If you look on any product that you buy from woollies or Coles, you will see that there is a barcode printed on them with a 13 digit number.  That is the unique article number of the product, and ultimately, that number was issued to the manufacturers by an EAN International.

Over time, EAN became more commercial and eventually changed name to GS1 in 2005.  With every large manufacturer embracing article numbers in the mid 1980s, GS1’s business has evolved to issuing unique article numbers to smaller manufacturers through third-party suppliers.  And it is these third-party suppliers that are the real problem.  These third-party suppliers often claimed that you MUST buy or rent barcodes, when what they really mean is they want to sell you a unique article number.  

If you plan to sell your plants into large retailers – Bunnings, Woolworths, et cetera – then you will need to obtain unique article numbers for each of your products. These large retailers often have very strict guidelines for these barcodes, and it is important that you check with them what they need before rushing to invest in article numbers and barcode labels.

However, if you are simply planning to use barcodes for your own internal use, then there is no need to purchase a unique article number.  You can use whatever product code will work with your own Point Of Sales solution.