High Performance Bar Code–What is It?

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The term “high performance” associated with a bar code usually equates to a very high, nearly 100% first-read rate.  That of course is the upper limit of how good a bar code could possibly be with respect to the quality of the printed symbol. But a high performance bar code is more than that.

A high performance bar code is more than just a good verification grade

In my collection of interesting bar codes is a file of poorly-performing symbols with ISO verification grades of 2.5 to 4.0 (ANSI B’s and A’s). The print quality is superb but the symbols failed for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • The symbol scans just fine but misrepresents the product in the retailer’s database. Consumers see this all the time and usually with special-price or close-out items. The bar code looks up the regular retail price, not the display-advertised “special price”. This is usually a database maintenance issue in that local store’s database.
  • The symbol scans just fine but doesn’t look-up anything. Consumers see this infrequently but it does happen. This is a database problem in the central database at the retailer headquarters.
  • The symbol scans just fine but represents a different size/flavor/color of an otherwise similar product but not the one in the box. Everything about the package says “Lemon Gelatin Mix” but the barcode says “Apple Gelatin Mix”. This is probably the worst disaster of all, since the retail establishment can’t track what it actually sold–whatever is in that box–and is re-inventorying something it didn’t actually sell, Apply Gelatin. We’ve seen at least two variations on this nightmare, one in which the wrong bar code is on the package, another in which human-readable characters beneath the bar code do not match what’s actually encoded in the bar code

Print quality is just one aspect of a high performance bar code

Then of course there are barcodes with low ISO verification grades where the print quality is poor and the symbols fail to scan.

There are other more subtle ways to sabotage a high performance bar code. If a product is sometimes retailed in carton quantities, such as in a big box store, but at other times broken down and sold in units within the carton, package printers have been known to dual-mark the carton with both an ITF-14 (GTIN-14) and a UPC (GTIN-12).

We can usually rely on the ITF-14 representing the case—but what does the UPC represent–the case, the sale unit? If the store scanner decodes both symbols, the customer is charged for the case plus what? If the store scanner only decodes the UPC, the customer is charged for what? What was sold and what is logged for inventory replenishment?

Bar code performance, it has been argued, is strictly a print quality issue. I disagree. Bar code is a tool, intended to perform a specific and important task. A failure to perform that task for any reason is a performance failure.

A high performance bar code must possess a host of  attributes including and beyond print quality

Here is a short list of attributes of a high performance bar code:

  • Correct symbology for the application
  • Validated symbol: assigned number is correctly matched to the item
  •  Retailer or user has been properly pre-notified
  • Correct location on the package
  • One symbol only on the package—no dual marking
  • Verified symbol: verification grade is highest practical grade for the package

This is part of a conversation begun in an earlier article about “who is responsible for bar code quality?” Print quality gets the most attention but in truth, every process and procedure that touches the barcode participates in its quality. The definition of “quality” must encompass not just the symbol itself but also the task for which it is intended. A high performance bar code is part of a much larger process than the symbol on the box.


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