Adventures in ecommerce barcoding

Adventures in ecommerce barcoding

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Thump-thump, thump-thump. Your heart is starting to beat faster. All those hours of hard work come down to this moment. Ready. Steady now. Steady…

BEEP! And just like that, with one scan of a barcode, your product has been added to your ecommerce store. Magic.

As with most things in ecommerce, that moment won’t come without a lot of grind. Scanning your barcodes is great. Creating barcodes? Not so much.

Barcoding is hard. In the past, I’ve built products with simple structures under one brand. In those cases, you can easily generate any old barcode. But I now have to consider the possibility that my store might expand and retract, move into different business areas, and generally evolve over time.

To future-proof barcodes, you’ve got to devise a system that matches your current merchandise and production map but also enables change, growth, and expansion. In this post I’m going to share:

  • How to create barcodes the easy way
  • How to create a sustainable system for generating barcodes
  • How to align barcodes with your warehouse and inventory system

What are barcodes and how are they used in ecommerce?

We all see barcodes every day. While you might not give them much thought, we know they’re the combination of numbers and lines scanned at checkouts. This has the dual purpose of telling us how much to pay and telling the store what they’ve sold.

In ecommerce, the first part isn’t so important. The price is listed and someone has agreed to pay the total of whatever’s in their shopping cart. But the second part remains vital for inventory management. A barcode is an essential identifier for each of your products. It creates a common language between your warehouse, your store and other sales channels so that you can always see which products have been sold and how many remain.

Most importantly, it will inform your warehouse which products to pick and pack. It’s imperative that the warehouse staff can quickly locate the product down to the correct warehouse bin, then fulfil the order.

Even if you’re doing your own fulfilment, it’s a good way to quickly put your hands on the right product (particularly if your inventory is packaged or some of your products look similar to each other).

What do you need to know about barcodes?

My barcode journey is just starting. If you're also new to it you’ll first need to get up to speed with barcode jargon like:

Global Trade Item Number (GTIN): The identifying number you’ll find on all barcodes. There are several types of these.

European Article Number (EAN): A type of GTIN commonly used for consumer products outside of North America. Also known as GTIN-13.

Universal Product Code (UPC): A type of GTIN commonly used for consumer products in North America. Also known as GTIN-12.

International Standard Book Number (ISBN): A type of GTIN used worldwide to identify books.

Whatever you’re selling, you’ll need a GTIN of some description. A final bit of jargon is GS1, the not-for-profit organisation that maintains international barcode codes. I’d recommend heading to GS1’s website to build your knowledge of GTINs.

In previous ventures, I’ve thought in terms of SKUs rather than barcodes. Make sure you’ve got your head around the difference between SKUs and barcodes before you start.
Once you’re up to speed, you can start generating barcodes.

The easy way to generate barcodes

Creating a barcode is easy. Shopify automatically generates barcodes for you.

The problem is that it generates a completely random number for each of your barcodes. If you’re selling just a few products and don’t intend to add many more that might be fine, but if you want a barcoding system that will tell you something about your products, it isn’t going to work. It’s like having your internet browser create a strong password for every site you visit and then trying to see some correlation between them.

I want to see that correlation. I want to be able to glance at a barcode and work out what it refers to.

If you read my post on product nomenclature, you’ll get the idea. I need a methodical, automated naming convention for my barcodes too. So how do you do that?

How to create a sustainable system for generating barcodes

If you’ve decided random barcode numbers are not for you, you’ll need to add some rhyme and reason to the process. That way, you’ll be able to read them nearly as quickly as a barcode scanner can. Here’s how I came up with my barcode system:

Decide what your barcode should tell you

What differentiators should be obvious just from looking at the numbers in your barcode? Maybe all barcodes for manufacturer A’s products start with 1, while all manufacturer B’s products start with 2.

For my clothing collection, my barcodes could comprise:

  • The first few digits representing the manufacturer or supplier
  • A few digits to denote the season or collection
  • Size
  • Colour
  • Product
  • Branding
  • Gender

Perhaps all products ending in 1 are unisex, 2 shows womenswear, and 3 tells me it’s menswear. Think about what will be helpful to you and your warehouse team.

Make a barcode matrix

Create a spreadsheet and start assigning numbers to the attributes you’ve selected. It might take a bit of trial and error, but it will be worth it.

Upload to Shopify

Once you’ve put in the effort to create your barcode matrix, you can import all your product data, including your barcodes, to Shopify via a CSV file. And you’re ready to go.

Using barcodes in ecommerce

Now we’re back to where we started: the fun bit. With the matrix and barcodes ready, you can put everything into practice.

Continuing the process of future-proofing, I signed up for Shopify’s Retail POS Plus app, which includes a subscription to its inventory management app Stocky. As well as scanning my barcodes, Stocky will allow me to do remote stock takes using the 1D Barcode Scanner I bought.

Which brings me to my recent trip to Sweden. Set among Bengtsfors’ beautiful lakes, rivers, and scenery is Valhall Logistik, where I’ll be warehousing my EU products. Because I don't like to do anything by halves, I travelled to the warehouse to put my barcodes through their paces. The owners introduced me to their processes, showed me where my products will be stored, and then let me borrow a phone for the big moment.

It was a case of downloading the Shopify POS app, connecting the Bluetooth scanner, and then preparing for that daunting first scan. Best beep ever.

It was incredible to see the product automatically show up in my store afterwards. But it was just as satisfying to know that if the tech had failed or we’d had connectivity issues, I’d still have been able to identify the product from its barcode alone.

My top tips for barcodes

With the bulk of my barcoding work now complete, I'm pleased I put in the extra effort to take this long-term approach. My tips would be:

  • Start using barcodes as you mean to go on — create an infrastructure that will scale with your store
  • Add meaning to your barcodes — used properly they are so much more than just random numbers
  • Visit your warehouse — see how your products will be stored and picked, and make sure your barcodes support those processes

Have you experienced that magical first beep? How are you using barcodes to make your life easier? As I said, I’m still learning, so please share your barcoding tips at

Adventures in ecommerce barcoding
Stephen Bourke
Ecommerce Store Manager

Stephen has over 4 years of experience running businesses and assisting entrepreneurs with Shopify stores. When he's not setting up shop, Stephen enjoys a good board game with his husband and friends. He's known for trying adventurous vegan cuisines.

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