Michael Adams Green Mountain Mustard and Gredio

Michael Adams, Owner
Green Mountain Mustard & Gredio

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The Ultimate Guide to Getting Barcodes for Your Food Business

They’re on almost every product in the grocery store. And there’s a couple ways to get them. What am I talking about? Barcodes. Barcodes help to create the grocery industry’s treasure trove of data. Through quick scans of the codes, you can learn how much of each product is selling, and even find a cheaper price at stores near by.

For many small food business entrepreneurs adding barcodes may be an unnecessary expense – it’s cumbersome, you usually have to get your label custom designed, and it can be expensive.

On the other hand, it’s a necessity to growing your food business, getting your product into major retailers, and becoming a more established company.

Yes, there are pros and cons, but getting barcodes goes far beyond tit for tat. It enters into strategy, sourcing, and design. Let’s dive into these sections further.

What you’ll learn:

  • What Barcodes Mean
  • Pros and Cons of Barcodes
  • Where to Buy Barcodes
  • Why Buy Recycled
  • Why Buy from GS1
  • Formatting Barcodes on Your Product
  • How to Test Your Barcodes
  • How to Let Stores Know About Your New Barcodes

Let’s get started — there’s so much to learn about barcodes!

What Barcodes Mean

When you look at barcodes, you probably think they don’t mean anything, except for serving as the identifier of a unique product. Yes, they do, but they are so much more.

Barcodes contain the SKU (stock keeping unit) for retailers to keep track of their inventory. Without this, they wouldn’t know how much of each product is in stock. And inventory is important to retailers because it’s money that’s tied up in (mostly) physical goods.

The SKU (the long string of numbers) is broken up into three parts:

  1. Your unique manufacturer’s ID
  2. Your unique product ID
  3. Your check digit (the last number)

Let’s look at an example:

UPC Barcode

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this example, the barcode is read like this:

  • Manufacturer’s ID: 020357
  • Unique Product ID: 122682
  • Check Digit: 2

The manufacturer’s ID is unique to (you guessed it) the manufacturer. This is only if you purchase your barcodes from the GS1 – the official barcode entity. We’ll get into why this is important later.

Your unique product ID corresponds to the product it’s on. For example, our wholegrain mustard has one. So does our horseradish. And each of our mustards. And if our mustards came in different size containers (4oz, 9oz, and 32oz), each product needs it’s own barcode.

Example: You have 10 flavors in 2 sizes. You’d need 20 barcodes. If you then had a case-pack UPC, you’d need 40 barcodes, but that’s terribly confusing. Only have a case-pack UPC is you have a master carton (cases in a box) or it’s requested of you by a major retailer.

And the check digit simply makes sure your barcode is the correct format. This check digit is required for new production information sheets at Whole Foods Markets.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Let’s look at some pros and cons of getting barcodes:

Pros of Getting Barcodes

Your product is ready to go on the shelf

There’s nothing better to a retail buyer than having a product that can go right on the shelf – barcode, nutrition facts, and all. Getting barcodes means they can scan your new product right into your system.

Ready for major retailers (even if you aren’t)

When you’re approached by big retailers, you want to be ready to go. They’ll ask for vendor information and product information immediately. And usually this includes a list of your barcodes. Don’t have them? You can kiss the big purchase order goodbye.

You can keep your own inventory

If you want, you can use your barcodes to keep your own product inventory. While I don’t do that for Green Mountain Mustard, if I had more than 25 products, it could make some sense.

Cons of Getting Barcodes

It can be expensive

If you get your own set of barcodes, you’re looking at a $750 setup fee (25 barcodes included). Then you pay the $149 annual fee. This doesn’t include the possible redesign of your labels to fit the barcodes.

Small stores probably won’t use them

The stores that don’t use any barcoding system are likely to be your first retailers. This means they’ll sticker a price – or their own barcode – over your barcode. Kind of makes your expensive barcode useless? Oh well – but it makes you want to get into retailers who have an inventory system, right?

So, in this list the pros outweigh the cons. Are you thinking “Let’s buy some barcodes”?

Hold up!

The decision can get a little more complicated when you decide whether you should buy recycled barcodes or get your own barcodes. That’s next up in the ultimate guide.

Recycled Barcodes vs. GS1 Barcodes

UPC Codes are a big decision. Both solutions — recycled and GS1 — have their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, it depends on where you want your business to go. Here’s a look at why you’d choose each type of barcode.

Why You Should Choose Recycled Barcodes

  1. They’re inexpensive

100 barcodes costs you $45 at Nationwide Barcode. That’s cheap compared to the GS1. As a startup, you can’t go wrong, but you get what you pay for — recycled barcodes. These aren’t yours. An aspiring entrepreneur bought thousands of barcodes and is simply reselling them to small businesses.

  1. You don’t plan to sell to large grocery stores

If you want to make some extra cash selling a product to small retailers in your state, then you’re probably fine with recycled barcodes. And some retailers may not even require them, so maybe you won’t need them!

  1. You don’t mind them not being in sequence

Let’s face it. Most entrepreneurs are type A. That means we like things in order. Unfortunately recycled barcodes (most of the time) don’t come in order – you could have a different prefix, too – depending on when you buy barcodes and need more. That creates an inconsistency in the retailer’s system. Plus, the global UPC record-keeping system is going to see your barcodes as someone else’s – whether it’s an old product or not (that’s what recycled barcoded are).

Where to buy recycled barcodes:

Why You Should Choose GS1 Barcodes

  1. Many large grocery stores require them

You can’t step foot into large grocery stores like Wegmans, Harris Teeter, and EarthFare without GS1 barcodes. They have you provide your GS1 company prefix on your paperwork for new item submission. There’s no way around it.

  1. You get your OWN barcodes

I own my own prefix now — specific to Green Mountain Mustard. That’s pretty awesome. And no one else shares that prefix. That means when I have national distribution, I’ll be able to look up sales data on my product — that’s data unavailable to me right now.

  1. It’s an investment

If you start a food company, you’ve got to be in for the long haul. That means making investments where you need to. One of those is real GS1 barcodes. They run $750 for 25 barcodes and then $150/year for “membership”. Make the investment.

I started with recycled barcodes and made the switch to my own GS1 barcodes 3 years later. I’ve never looked back. It’s helped my product on the shelf at larger retailers and made my company legitimate in the eyes of buyers. And it’s made it a hassle to get my barcodes changed with older retailers.

Ultimately, it’s your decision. I’d recommend GS1 barcodes from the beginning.

How to get your GS1 Barcodes: Head over to the GS1 and get started.

Formatting Barcodes on Your Food Product

Now that you’ve decided to purchase barcodes (recycled or from the GS1), it’s time to put them on your labels. Just a couple things to keep in mind:

  • Barcode files tend to come with strange file extensions that require other software to open and format.
  • Your barcode can go on either side of your label – the left or right panels.
  • Your barcodes can be pretty small
  • You barcodes do not have to include the whole bar (ours are cut in half)
  • Make sure to test your barcodes (more on that below)

How to Test Your Barcodes

The worst thing to happen to a new food product is to print your labels only to find out the barcodes don’t scan. (Ok, maybe this isn’t the worst thing, but it’s pretty awful) Before you print them professionally, print them on your computer and do one of two things:

  1. Take them to a retailer. Bring your codes to a retailer and ask them to scan the code. If it beeps, you’re in luck. If you bought recycled barcodes, It may bring up another product in the system, but don’t worry too much about it. If it doesn’t scan, you have to make the coder bigger and/or clearer for the scanner to recognize it.
  2. Scan them with your smartphone. Download a shopping app or QR reader and scan the barcode. If it beeps, you’re in luck. If it isn’t, make it clear just like above. Oh, and this method is practically free – and saves you the driving time to the store.

Once your barcodes are purchased, integrated into your label, and scanned, it’s time to let your retailers know about your new barcodes. Here’s the process I used:

How to Notify Your Retailers:

  1. Create a Microsoft Word or Google Doc.
  2. Insert a table that’s 3 columns wide by however many rows you need
  3. Paste one barcode into each cell
  4. Include product name and unit size (9oz) below the barcode
  5. Save the document as a PDF
  6. Send it to your retailers, distributors, and brokers.

This sheet makes it easier to get your barcodes into their system by providing a quick scan sheet.

Free Template Download:

If you’re looking for an editable barcode document, I’ve provided one for free here – no email address required. (Just replace the “Barcode Here” boxes with your own UPC codes).

> Download Your Free Barcode Template <

PS: Have anything else to add about barcodes? Feel free to comment below.

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34 Comments on this post

  1. AUTHORNatalie

    on August 7, 2015 at 2:35 am - Reply

    We purchased our first set of barcodes this spring from GS1. We bought the smallest package – $150 for 10 barcodes, and decided to wait until we needed more before upgrading to the next level – 100 for $500. When the time came to buy more barcodes a few weeks ago, we found out that we’d have to turn in our original 10 barcodes and buy the second package. Too expensive; we’d already had a number of barcodes printed, and we’re not sure if we’re ready to be paying $500 a year for use of the GS1 codes yet…so we went with buying recycled barcodes for the next set.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on August 7, 2015 at 11:26 am - Reply

      Hey Natalie — The GS1 is certainly expensive. But, it depends on your goals. The recycled ones worked fine for me for 3 years, then I had to upgrade because of a couple retailers. You could also create direct to consumer products and eliminate barcodes all together – a thought I’ve often had 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  2. AUTHORChris

    on August 7, 2015 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Thank you again for a great article! A great resource, especially for making a sell sheet label, Amazon label, or other formatted scannable labels is http://generator.barcoding.com/. You’ll just need to know what format you need. It has helped out tremendously with Amazon labels by allowing us to print the unique FBA barcode right onto the packaging labels we print in house.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on August 7, 2015 at 4:27 pm - Reply

      Great point, Chris — there are a lot of awesome labeling systems out there. I use my DYMO all day every day for shipping labels and product ID labels.

  3. AUTHORKaren L

    on August 7, 2015 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Michael! Super helpful and just what I needed some insight on. I appreciate your posts very much- keep ’em coming! Thank you!

  4. AUTHORJanet

    on August 9, 2015 at 11:19 pm - Reply

    Excellent article Michael. I purchased and (a friend) created 5 of 10 GTINs with GS1 so far. I actually sent them to the printer and have them on my packaging. However all the stores I’m in so far are small and don’t use them. After reading the section on testing your barcodes I downloaded 2 different apps on my smart phone and discovered that nothing comes up when I scan my UPC codes. 🙁 I went to the GS1 site and Data Driver trying to figure out what to do, but am stuck….. Any suggestions?

    • AUTHORmichael

      on August 10, 2015 at 12:03 am - Reply

      Hey Janet — I have two suggestions:

      1. Resolution of the barcode. Are you using full resolution barcodes or did you modify them in a program to lose resolution?
      2. Your phone apps — are they for scanning barcodes or QR codes?

      All it has to do is beep – it doesn’t necessarily need to convey your product’s information. Because it’s a small product, you won’t be in their databases. If it beeps, you’re in business. If not, you’ve got to make your barcode higher resolution or larger to be scannable.

      Hope that helps!

      Michael

  5. AUTHORJanet

    on August 13, 2015 at 1:19 am - Reply

    So it beeps! I guess I’m in business…?? Now with your awesome barcode document, I should be good to go and get into the larger stores who’ve recently contacted me but were requesting the barcodes. Thanks so much, Michael!!!

    • AUTHORmichael

      on August 13, 2015 at 10:23 am - Reply

      Awesome, Janet! It’s always a relief when the barcode beeps!

  6. AUTHORMargarito Vanhuss

    on September 3, 2015 at 2:30 am - Reply

    This will prevent problems like applying payments to the incorrect customer account or invoice. However, there are also many online tools that you can use to generate barcodes without any investment.

  7. AUTHOREdith

    on September 29, 2015 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    .Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the article. Very helpful.

    Thanks again,

    Edith

    • AUTHORmichael

      on September 30, 2015 at 11:46 am - Reply

      Hey Edith,

      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading the blog!

      Michael

  8. AUTHORMrunalini Kulkarni

    on January 27, 2016 at 2:34 am - Reply

    I am starting a new food business. I have ready many articles about barcodes. But I still dont understand it completely. I understand that I may need to buy barcodes either recycled or from GS1. I still dont understand how this will work with various grocery stores. I was told that I will have to buy a barcode for each grocery store that i sell at – for ex I have 3 products and 4 grocery stores that I sell at. Then do I need 12 barcodes? I am totally confused as to how this all works with grocery stores.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on February 10, 2016 at 11:55 am - Reply

      Hi Mrunalini,

      You need a barcode for every product you have. For example, if you have 3 flavors of granola in 2 different sizes, you need 6 barcodes. All retailers use the same barcodes you use. Hope that helps! Thanks for reading!

  9. AUTHORMatt

    on August 5, 2016 at 9:46 am - Reply

    Thanks Michael, this is a great article. I’ve been operating my garden supply business for almost a decade. When I first started out we considered going through the GS1 but, the cost was just too much for us to take on so we went through a recycled called Quality UPC ( http://www.qualityupc.com ). These guys were super helpful got us all set up to sell in the store and everything worked great. 7-years later Walmart contacted us. At that time we needed to switch over to the GS1 in order to sell with them. In the end I think it’s important to know financially going through a reseller was the best decision we made and once we had the capital and the big retailers required us to switch over we did and it made sense. For small businesses I recommend the recycled and when you get big go with the GS1.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on August 5, 2016 at 11:58 am - Reply

      Yes – very true, Matt. We started out with recycled but as we entertained big retailers, it was time to switch over and re-do our labels. There is this sort-of inflection point where it makes sense to change. Thanks for the link to Quality UPC, too. — Michael

  10. AUTHORRegina

    on August 30, 2016 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    Great info! I was wondering if a hybrid bar code system would work. Let’s say that I start out with recycled bar codes for my local customers and farmers markets just to get a handle on the inventory.. At some point I may want to add some products that I want for large store distribution. Could I not keep two sets of bar code numbers in my inventory system and transfer over to GS1 only those items that are for the national or large-retailer market? I would think that any inventory system should handle that but I am just getting started with retail systems.

    I’m sure there are downsides to this but I’m not sure what they are.

    • AUTHORmichael

      on September 1, 2016 at 7:50 pm - Reply

      Hi Regina,

      Your idea makes a little sense. But, why aren’t you developing products for the masses? Then, you’d only need the GS1 codes. It seems you have two different strategies going on where some products may not even need a barcode and some may. I started out with recycled and then moved everything over — never had a mix, though.

  11. AUTHORNatalie

    on October 19, 2016 at 11:09 pm - Reply

    I’m getting conflicting information about SKUs. I read elsewhere that the SKUs are alpha numeric codes that are internal and not associated with the barcodes. Any tips on how to generate SKUs for a new food business? Thanks!

    • AUTHORmichael

      on October 20, 2016 at 10:59 am - Reply

      Hi Natalie,

      SKUS are internal. For example, our horseradish mustard sku is GMM-HP. Wholegrain is GMM-GG. THey can be letter, numbers or a combination of both. It depends on what you want and what’s easy to remember. They could differ by size, too. One SKU for 9oz, one for 4oz.

      Your barcode goes on your product so the grocery store can scan it. If the buyer is ordering your product, he’ll use your internal SKUS OR your barcodes to order.

      Hope that clears things up!

      Michael

  12. AUTHORRenee Dunn

    on February 4, 2017 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    Hi Michael,

    I purchased 50 recycled barcodes,and need to start affixing them to my labels. I’m kind of confused based on information I’m reading on the GS1 website http://www.gs1.org/10-steps-to-barcode-your-product

    There’s a difference between variable information and static information. Having variable information seems helpful – expiration date, date of production, etc. How would I go about assigning one way or the other? Is that just communicated internally to buyers or retailers in a sell sheet/barcode sheet as you mentioned, or is that done on some external database? I’m confused by the process of assigning meaning to the barcodes.

    Would you mind breaking that down a bit further?

    Thank you!
    Renee

    • AUTHORmichael

      on February 7, 2017 at 10:24 pm - Reply

      Hi Renee,

      That does get a little technical, and you probably don’t it. Generally expiration date and product coding is printed on the product somewhere else. Or, you can use a pricing gun to affix a label — depends on your manufacturing capabilities or your co-packer.

  13. AUTHORzacharie

    on August 9, 2017 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    Should I wait until I land large retail store accounts to buy the barcodes? It’s a big investment

    • AUTHORmichael

      on August 9, 2017 at 10:53 pm - Reply

      I would bite the bullet for large retailers. If you want to remain small, I see no problem with just buying recycled.

  14. AUTHORBash

    on October 19, 2017 at 8:42 am - Reply

    Hi Michael,
    First, overall your blog has very useful information and practical approach guidances. Great job and thank you!

    Secondly, I am planning to deal with some online and offline big retailers ( e.g amazon FBA, whole Food, walmart ) and my question is:

    Do I need to have different GS1 barcodes for each of units and each of case-packs ( which includes 6 units) or I can use the same barcode for the unit and its case-pack?

    Cheers,

    • AUTHORmichael

      on November 3, 2017 at 12:14 am - Reply

      Hi Bash, thank yoU! You can use the same UPC for unit and case.

  15. AUTHORJennifer Davidson

    on November 2, 2017 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Just so I understand correctly, if it beeps, then it works? I see on the GS1 site there’s a 6th step called “Share” that references EDI or GDSN and I’m completely confused as to which one, or if I need either. I understand your advice to be, get your barcode, test it yourself (mine beeps), then share your product information with your barcode so that your retailers can load into their system and add their own pricing info. Yeah?
    Thanks so much!
    -Exhausted Entrepreneur

    • AUTHORmichael

      on November 3, 2017 at 12:18 am - Reply

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you for reading! If a retailer has not asked about your EDI software, ignore it – it’s a pain. Your focus should be making sure your barcodes are on your products and sell sheets – and that they scan at retail. Keep it simple! Good luck!

  16. AUTHORSonia L.

    on May 10, 2018 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Hi Micheal!

    Thank you for taking your time to help people like me. Your blog took a big part of the fog off my mind! I am starting out with a new product and didn’t know it would be this much to do. Lol. It is quite fun as it unfolds though, thanks to people like you!
    Thanks again!

    • AUTHORmichael

      on May 10, 2018 at 11:19 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Sonia! Good luck with your food business – one step at a time!

      • AUTHORSonia L.

        on May 19, 2018 at 12:25 pm - Reply

        Hello Micheal,
        can I buy barcodes for products that I didn’t manufacture but that I imported?

  17. AUTHORSonia L.

    on May 19, 2018 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    And thanks for the good luck wish!

  18. AUTHORPhoebe Scarborough

    on July 30, 2019 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    Hi! I have a 6 month old gluten free bakery that I’ve been selling out of a mobile cart. I’m starting to offer my products to bodegas (I’m in Brooklyn) and I have an opportunity to get into a food hall type market inside of a mall. Do I need to barcode before I offer my product?

    • AUTHORmichael

      on July 30, 2019 at 11:26 pm - Reply

      Hi Phoebe — I would get UPC codes for retail — it’s just easier to track what retailers sell and what you sell at the food hall.

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