Barcodes are the familiar, usually black and white, stripes that appear on product packaging and labels. Nowadays the lack of barcodes or their improper placement on products may raise doubts about your company’s competency and the quality of its products. Every manufacturing or retail business must, therefore, be able to appreciate the usefulness of these codes and be able to properly use them when the need arises.

Do you need barcodes?

Earlier I mentioned that at the very least, barcodes can give your products a semblance of professionalism—however, their purpose goes beyond mere appearances. These codes are used by various POS and inventory management software to make the checkout and stock-keeping processes faster and more efficient. If the retailers and wholesalers whom you intend to offload your products on, invested in the relevant software and equipment to speed up their operations it would then stand to reason that they would strongly prefer that their suppliers use these codes. Bigger retailers and wholesalers can refuse to carry your products because of lack or problematic barcodes.

The structure of the barcode

The barcode that is used in most parts of the world is called the International Article Number or more usually the European Article Number (EAN). This code is comprised of 13 digits which are divided into four components namely the GS1 prefix, the manufacturer code, the product code and the final check digit. This code is then encoded into the parallel bars of differing widths which a scanner can read.  The numerical code is almost always written underneath its graphic counterpart.

The prefix

The GS1 prefix is three digits in length and represents the GS1 member organisation which the manufacturer has joined. Since in most cases these member organisations serve entire countries (and any willing foreign entities) this can be viewed as the country code. Zimbabwe does not currently have a GS1 member organisation so local companies have to get their codes elsewhere. You will notice that the majority of the products made in the country by established companies have a prefix of 600. This is the code for the South African GS1 registrar.

The manufacturer code

The manufacturer code, like the product code, is of variable length. The code represents the manufacturer of the product i.e. each has to be unique. This code is assigned by the registrar.

The product code

The variable-length product code is supposed to be unique to each of the products produced by the manufacturer.  Even different weights, sizes or colours of the same product may need different product codes if you feel that it is sufficient enough need to differentiate them during checkout or stock keeping.

Even though both the manufacturer and product codes can vary in length, the total length of both must be nine digits. The manufacturer code is usually chosen in such a way that companies with larger product ranges have more digits allocated to the product code (and hence less to the manufacturer code). Companies with fewer products do not need as many digits for the product code so they usually have much lengthier manufacturer codes.

Where to get the codes

Official registrars

The most straightforward way of getting a barcode is through an official GS1 registrar. These organisations are usually non-profit and if you want a manufacturer code you have to “join” them and pay a recurring fee. Since Zimbabwe does not have one such organisation you can register with any in the region such as the one in South Africa.


Smaller businesses may find the requirements and fees demanded by the above approach to be a bit much and hence prefer a simpler approach. They usually turn to resellers, most of which can be found online. These are businesses which own a large barcode range which they sell portions off of. This reselling can take the form of either a one time or recurring fee for the code(s).

Always research a barcode reseller beforehand to avoid problems in the future—you do not want to be duped into buying a code already in use. If you want to export your products it is far much safer (and worth it) to just get your unique manufacturer code directly from a GS1 registrar.

Proper printing of the barcode

While most bar codes are black and white they can be printed using any pair of colours provided they have sufficient contrast between them. Do not make the barcode too small, if you have doubts about the size, find a similarly sized product or packaging by another manufacture and see what size they used. In general, the bigger the barcode, the better but this does not mean it has to eclipse everything else on the label. The barcode has to be clear and it should be possible to tell apart the individual bars using the naked eye.

Test your barcode

Before you deploy your products with their new barcodes you have to test that they work. You can use your scanner to see if the barcode scans quickly enough—generally it should be on the first attempt. If scanning is laborious, rework your barcode or redesign your label/packaging. If you do not have access to a laser scanner you can use smartphone apps like Zebra.