Crash and Burn: Barcode Disasters in the Supply Chain

 In 301

We’ve all heard the sorry stories about some company that got itself into trouble with some big retailer because of a problem with their barcodes. What are these barcode problems and how do they happen?

It is often assumed that the problem is caused by printing problems—the barcode is poorly printed or damaged somehow. While this is sometimes the cause the problem, it is by no means the only reason.

For now I’m just talking about barcodes on a consumer sale unit or SKU. Case and pallet barcodes are a whole other area that I’ll talk about at a later time.

There are several ways a barcode could fail. Probably the most subtle is when the number assignment is incorrect. Usually this happens when a company’s number assignment database is accessed by more than one person or department. Although it seems like an obvious problem to avoid, often it occurs when a company adds barcode number assignment responsibilities to an existing functional area, such as graphics design or packaging, but the data is also handled by some other functional area such as IT or logistics who communicates the data to the supply chain. If multiple functional areas are operating with copies of the barcode number assignment database, they may not be all updated at the same time. New products may not appear in all the databases, old product numbers may not be deleted.

This gets even more interesting if legacy number assignments are recycled into new products. Some databases may still show the legacy number with the old product; some may show the new product to which the legacy number was reassigned. One can only hope that the retailers have been communicated the correct and up-to-date data.

Ironically, in this scenario the barcode problem is a scanning problem: the barcode scans great—it’s just scanning the wrong number or possibly scanning a number that has been reassigned but not communicated throughout the entire organization. Either way, it is a disaster for tracking what’s been sold and what is needed to replenish the supply chain.

The global scope of consumer trade creates another subtle problem. North American retailers are set up to accept the ubiquitous 12 digit UPC and the databases of some retail systems here are configured to accept 12 digits in the barcode lookup field. Products sourced offshore are required to be marked according to the rules of their home country, which is often the 13 digit EAN or JAN format. Databases with a 12 digit barcode lookup field cannot accept this scanned data and the system fails.

In truth the UPC is a 13 digit symbol, the 13th digit cleverly embedded in the encoded data—but if the database doesn’t accommodate this, well, Houston, we have a problem.

Finally, there are the problems of barcode scanning due to printing or packaging errors, which include such mundane things as excessive press gain (bars too fat), poor symbol or background color choices (symbol contrast failure), poor design decisions for symbol location where the barcode folds around a corner or is partially obliterated by shrink wrap.

The barcode is one of the most overlooked factors in the supply chain and often the cause of retailer complaints, quality action reports, fines and eventual breach of the vendor-retailer relationship.

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