ALTOM: Bar-coding could help your business for as little as $200

Tim Altom
July 31, 2010
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Tim Altom

Years ago, when technology was just starting to classify and count all of us, we worried we’d become merely numbers. Now we may not even be readable numbers, but just ink on a bar code. And that’s a good thing, as it turns out.

Bar codes were once only for the biggest companies to slap onto their shipments so entire pallets could be logged into a warehouse with the swipe of a scanner, or inventory could be easily conducted on tens of thousands of shelved items. Smaller companies were sometimes forced to use bar codes, too, but it was a pain and quite expensive. Almost all bar codes went onto product going out the door, or were read from product coming in.

Times change, as anyone who’s attended a conference recently can confirm. Most name badges now come with some kind of bar code, and often codes that are distinctly different from the old “picket fence” variety. Booth vendors need only swipe a reader across your badge to start dunning you with years of literature.

Examine your airline boarding pass the next time you’re flying the allegedly friendly skies, and it’s likely you’ll see yet another kind of bar code, one that doesn’t have bars at all—a modern “2D” bar code that looks more like a small black-and-white piece of modern art.

Bar codes are surprisingly old technology, first patented in 1952. The bar code on the original patent actually looks more like a dartboard with concentric circles than anything we’d recognize. The food industry pioneered the use of the more familiar vertical-line bar codes back in the 1970s, to help the newfangled supermarkets keep track of stock and to speed up their register lines. It was expensive, but worth it if you had enough stock items to justify it. The Defense Department got in the game in the 1980s, which made the technology more popular and brought prices down. True to form, however, the Pentagon dictated its own bar code standard, which was different from the Universal Product Code standard everybody else was using.

Today, there are at least 80 formats for bar codes, many of which aren’t made up of bars. About half that number are classified as 2D, and can hold more data than the old bar-type codes can and are often designed for special purposes. The EZcode, for example, which is marketed by Scanbuy (www.scanbuy.com), is intended to be scanned by cell phone cameras. The high-capacity color bar code from Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) holds a very high information density, using color rather than simple black-and-white. If you’ve seen a movie with Dolby sound in a theater lately, you’ve heard a soundtrack encoded on a series of bar codes placed between the sprocket holes of the film (www.dolby.com).

Almost any situation where you need to track things or convey small bits of information can be an application for bar codes. Law firms are using bar codes to track vital documents and files. Companies with equipment inventories have long used bar codes on computers, monitors, printers, faxes and the like. Security badges with bar codes have generally been replaced by those with more durable RFID chips, but bar-coded badges are still cheap and readily available, especially for short-term use like conventions or visitors. Keys and similar items can be checked in and out more quickly. Print a bar code with a customer ID on your invoices, and you could speed up processing several times over.

The local library system has bar-coded all its books and other assets, so they can be checked out with only a swipe on the reading station. Toyota exploited bar codes in a recent campaign handing out fliers at Giants Stadium. Fans needed only to take a picture of the bar code using their cell phones and send it to a third-party vendor, which then returned a multimedia message from New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Researchers have bar-coded bees to automatically scan them on their ways in and out of their hives. I suppose you could bar code your kids and scan them every time they ran in or out of the house.

Still, the single most common use for bar codes remains the identification of goods in commerce. If you need to get into bar-coding so that your own manufactured goods will be properly scanned at a warehouse or point of sale, you can get your very own UPC code by joining GS1, the UPC standard organization (www.gs1us.org).

For smaller or internal applications, many business software companies have adapted their packages to work with bar code hardware, or you can buy third-party software to adapt them. Quickbooks maker Intuit (www.intuit.com), for example, lists several bar code partners on its website. The price of entry for bar-coding may not be as high as you think, either. Beginner packages can be as little as $200 from large stationers like Office Depot or OfficeMax.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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  1. With Pence running the ship good luck with a new government building on the site. He does everything on the cheap except unnecessary roads line a new beltway( like we need that). Things like state of the art office buildings and light rail will never be seen as an asset to these types. They don't get that these are the things that help a city prosper.

  2. Does the $100,000,000,000 include salaries for members of Congress?

  3. "But that doesn't change how the piece plays to most of the people who will see it." If it stands out so little during the day as you seem to suggest maybe most of the people who actually see it will be those present when it is dark enough to experience its full effects.

  4. That's the mentality of most retail marketers. In this case Leo was asked to build the brand. HHG then had a bad sales quarter and rather than stay the course, now want to go back to the schlock that Zimmerman provides (at a considerable cut in price.) And while HHG salesmen are, by far, the pushiest salesmen I have ever experienced, I believe they are NOT paid on commission. But that doesn't mean they aren't trained to be aggressive.

  5. The reason HHG's sales team hits you from the moment you walk through the door is the same reason car salesmen do the same thing: Commission. HHG's folks are paid by commission they and need to hit sales targets or get cut, while BB does not. The sales figures are aggressive, so turnover rate is high. Electronics are the largest commission earners along with non-needed warranties, service plans etc, known in the industry as 'cheese'. The wholesale base price is listed on the cryptic price tag in the string of numbers near the bar code. Know how to decipher it and you get things at cost, with little to no commission to the sales persons. Whether or not this is fair, is more of a moral question than a financial one.