Barcodes play a critical role in data collection strategies. Not only are they used to understand stock inventory, supply chain and sales activity, but information regarding customer behaviour and preferences too.

In essence, without barcoding, it’s nigh on impossible to identify and manage bulk stock items. From food items to IT equipment, any retailers – especially wholesalers– rely on barcodes to identify and categorise products at all stages of the sales journey.

From tracking assets and equipment in a warehousing facility to managing a raw materials inventory, the efficiency and accuracy of barcodes are paramount to today’s modern retail environment. Although not always a legal requirement, marking a product with a barcode denotes a trading partner agreement – one that businesses rely on for operational finesse.

Barcodes indicate a global standard – they’re not just random numbers selected by brands, but a visual representation of product authenticity and a Global Trade Identity Number (GTIN). With the rise of eCommerce, the importance of GTIN numbers cannot be overstated. Consumer eCommerce now accounts for 30% of the total retail market in the UK.

The GS1 barcode launched a digital revolution that forever changed the world of retail. With just a simple scan, products of all descriptions across countless industries can be identified, all connected through a computerised system.

Yet, despite the ubiquity of GS1 and barcodes and their impact on all our lives as consumers, you’d be surprised just how few people know how important they really are. Let’s change that. Starting with the basics.

What is GS1?

GS1 (or Global Standards 1) is an international organisation. There are member bodies spanning the globe in more than 100 countries, making GS1 the most widely used standards system in the world. GS1 standards transform and simplify our increasingly complex supply chains, bolstering commercial efficiency, and in the case of medical products, saving lives.

Founded in 1977 when the European Article Numbering Association (EAN) was launched in Brussels, leading to the development of the EAN-13 product code, GS1 manages the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) system. This is used to identify businesses, their products and services used in UPC, EAN and other barcodes, in addition to Electronic Product Codes (EPCs) or Radio Frequency Identity Tags (RFIDs).

There are 116 neutral and independent GS1 organisations which serve a community of 58,000 organisations to uniquely identify and track products, places and even people. These organisations evolve with their members’ needs, delivering data solutions that build unrivalled trust and significant commercial insight.

A GS1 GTIN is generally composed of four individual components. These are:

  • The Company Prefix, also known as the GS1 company ID for creating barcodes and other product identifiers
  • A country prefix (the UK’s prefix, for example, is 500 to 509)
  • A unique product identifier (typically three digits long) – this is the product code
  • A check digit is used to make sure that the GTIN is correct (this can be manually assigned, using the modulus-10 algorithm)

How Does GS1 Work?

In addition to identifying and accurately capturing and sharing vital product, asset or location information, GS1 helps businesses to streamline processes, for example, traceability, allowing them to provide more efficient internal operations and improve customer service.


GS1 identity keys provide businesses with an efficient means of accessing and sharing information about specific items in their supply chains with trading partners. This allows them to assign standard identifiers to products, physical locations, documents and more.

With GS1 keys being globally unique, they can be shared between organisations, increasing supply chain visibility – something that greatly benefits supply chain partners.

To build a GS1 key, businesses must be a member of GS1 and have a GS1 Company Prefix. This forms the basis of one of the 12 ID keys that businesses can have, with each ID key being used to identify product groups.

For instance, the GTIN (or Global Trade Item Number) identifies products and services, such as food and recreational items and products such as a tin of soup or an MP3 player. A Serial Shipping Container Code (SSCC) is used to identify logistics units, such as pallets, roll cages or parcels. The Global Individual Asset Identifier (GIAI) represents medical, manufacturing, transportation and IT equipment.

Obviously, using the correct identity key is paramount to correctly labelling goods. Using the wrong barcode can send the wrong products to the wrong destination. Delicate goods, such as medical technology, can become damaged if incorrectly labelled when in transit. And these are just two of the issues that can arise if goods are incorrectly labelled.

Do I Need a Company Prefix? How to Get One

A UPC (or Universal Product Code) barcode is the unique code printed on packaging to identify an item. It consists of two parts: the machine-readable barcode (the unique, vertical black bars we’re all familiar with) and the corresponding number located underneath. This number is your Company Data Prefix.

Your Company Data Prefix will be between six and eleven digits long, depending on how many GTINs you require. This prefix is used to identify your product(s) and varies from products to cases, pallets to geographic location and more.

Before you can begin using GS1 identification keys and barcodes, you must first have a GS1 Company Prefix. This globally unique code demonstrates that your business adheres to GS1 identification standards.

Your GS1 Company Prefix is located on your GS1 Company Prefix Certificate. Don’t worry if you’re unable to locate the certificate, you can also find it by visiting the GS1 website here.

Types of GS1 Barcodes

It should come as little surprise that there are multiple types of GS1 barcodes, after all, these unique identifiers are integral to a wide range of industries, from retail to healthcare, creating a faster, more reliable, safer and more efficient world.

At a cursory glance, barcodes can look quite similar – almost identical to one another in some cases. However, when you take a closer inspection of the barcode itself and Company Prefix, you’ll begin to notice that specific products have clear numerical and barcode designs.

While each barcode is individual, barcodes of the same type will have shared structures and patterns. For instance, all retail POS (point-of-sale) and general distribution items feature EAN-13 barcodes. These barcodes encode Global Trade Item Numbers which are recognised the world over.

Similarly, EAN-8 barcodes are used for very small items – those which cannot accommodate the EAN-13 barcode at the minimum recommended size and include such goods as cosmetics and confectionery products.

Interested in discovering the complete range of barcodes? Click here to find out which barcode you need to employ.

GS1 Labelling Standards

GS1 labelling standards provide the industry with a common language, allowing systems across supply chains to talk to one another. In short, it connects industries, organisations, and their systems in a transparent and trusted way, giving access to everyone who needs it. The key factor is traceability, whether identifying, capturing or sharing information.

Across every sector, consumers and regulators are demanding greater visibility and transparency. This transcends all elements of the supply chain and encompasses everything from product ingredients to business ethos. Oftentimes, understanding these factors directly impacts the consumer purchasing decision and corporate identity. In short, people want to know more about the products they buy, be it commitment to sustainability, product safety, fair trade or fair labour.

Yet it is rather difficult to get such information to the right people when it is siloed in closed systems. This has resulted in industry leaders championing interoperability between systems to allow information to openly flow between internal teams and trading partners. By integrating systems to speak to one another, it becomes easy for people to communicate, collaborate and coordinate with one another.

How to Print GS1 Barcodes

There is a 10-step process to printing GS1 barcodes. But in the interest of brevity, we’ll condense the process below.

Step 1 – Get a Company Prefix

Assign the numbers that will appear on the barcode (or the GS1 Identification Keys) and can be obtained from a GSI Member Organisation.

Step 2 – Assign Numbers

Your GSI Member Organisation can provide you with specific information about how many numbers you can assign based on the length of your GS1 prefix.

Step 3 – Select a Barcode Printing Process

Choose whether the barcode will carry static or dynamic information. Static barcodes can be printed traditionally and applied to the product packaging or label. Dynamic barcodes are printed digitally or through a combination of digital and print. Additionally, dynamic barcodes do not necessarily need to be printed on a label.

Step 4 – Select a Primary Scanning Environment

Barcode size, type, placement and quality will all need to be scanned. POS barcodes must support omnidirectional scanning. POS and warehouse barcodes require a symbol to accommodate POS scanning but printed in a larger size to accommodate scanning during the distribution process. Healthcare items barcodes do not require omnidirectional scanning, unless scanned at POS.

Step 5 – Select a Barcode

Selecting the right barcode is paramount. Use this resource to find the right barcode.

Step 6 – Choose a Barcode Size

The size of the barcode depends on its symbology, encoded information, where the barcode will be placed and how the symbol will be printed. Top tip: EAN/UPC symbols are designed for scanning by omnidirectional retail scanners.

Step 7 – Format the Company Prefix

Your Company Prefix must be clearly legible and proportional to the size of the barcode symbol. Should the barcode become illegible, these digits will be used to identify the goods.

Step 8 – Pick a Barcode Colour

To ensure legibility, the most common barcodes are black bars atop a white background. Other colours can also be used, such as dark blue or dark brown. Barcode lines should be a single colour with the spaces between the background and barcode lines clear.

Step 9 – Pick a Barcode Placement

Barcodes should be placed where they’re least likely to be damaged or obscured, such as the side of a package and NOT underneath.

Step 10 – Build a Barcode Quality Plan

To ensure the consistent quality of your barcodes, it’s a good idea to build a barcode quality plan, such as the ISO/IEC 15416 Barcode Print Quality Specification for Linear Symbols, which describes a method for assessing barcode symbol quality after they are printed.

Do I Need a GS1 Barcode for My Product?

The short answer is yes. Assigning individual GS1 barcodes to your products means that you can move products through the supply chain whilst enjoying complete peace of mind.

Whether products are being sold online or in-store, each item will need to have a unique GTIN (Global Trade Item Number) to make it quick and easy to identify individual products wherever they are in the world, regardless of their position in the supply chain.

How to Check and Verify GS1 Barcodes

There are a handful of ways to check and verify GS1 barcodes. The quickest and easiest is to visit this page on the GS1 website and type in the GTIN number to identify the product and information supplied by the brand owner to verify the product’s identity.

However, this simply isn’t possible in a commercial setting… imagine queuing for your weekly food shop and retail checkout workers scan the GTIN numbers one after the other, for every single item you purchase!

In a commercial environment, checking and verifying GS1 barcodes is completed using in-line and off-line barcode verifiers, checking that every aspect of the code meets industry standards and specifications – and identifies the individual product scanned.

Contact Cobalt

Do you need help with setting up your barcoding systems and processes, or are you looking to solve a difficult barcoding challenge? We can help – talk to our GS1 approved team today to book a consultation with one of our GS1 accredited barcoding specialists, or fill out the contact form with your query.