A product with a barcode.

Buying things at a supermarket has never been easier or quicker thanks to barcode technology. You must have seen the black-and-white zebra stripes on everything from sugar packets to stationery and the readers that are used to detect them. But have you ever stopped to think how they work?

If you run a busy store, you need to keep track of all the things you sell so you can make sure the ones your customers want to buy are at all times in stock. The simplest way of doing that is to walk around the shelves looking for empty spaces and simply restock where you need to.

Alternatively, you could write down what people buy at the checkout, make a list of all the purchases, and then simply use that to record your stock. That’s fine for a small store, but what if you’re running a big store with thousands of items on sale? If you mark all your items with their prices, and you need to change the prices before you sell the goods, you have to re-price everything. And what about shoplifting? If you see a lot of deodorant sprays missing from the shelves, can you really be certain you’ve sold them all? How do you know if some have been stolen?

Using barcode technology in stores can help to solve all these problems. It lets you keep a centralised record on a computer system that tracks products, prices, and stock levels.
You can change prices as often as you like, without having to put new price tags on all your bottles and boxes. This is why you see prices on the shelves rather than on the items in places like Game, Uchumi or Shoprite. You can instantly see when stock levels of certain items are running low and reorder. Because barcode technology is very accurate, you can be reasonably confident that any items that are missing (and don’t appear to have been sold) have probably been stolen or otherwise.

Question is, how does this system work? Well, there are three main parts including a central computer running a database (record system) that keeps a tally of all the products you’re selling, who makes it, what each one costs, and how many you have in stock. Second, there are the barcodes printed on all the products. Finally, there are one or more checkout scanners that can read the barcodes.

A barcode is a really simple idea; give every item that you want to classify its own unique number and then simply print the number on the item so an electronic scanning device can read it.

You could simply print the number itself, but the trouble with numbers is that they make it easy to make mistakes for instance a “6” could be a “9” when turned upside down. Barcodes solve this problem by having reliable way of printing numbers so that they can be read very accurately at high speeds.

Of course, when you look at a barcode, you probably can’t make head or tail of it, but it’s simple. Each digit in the product number is given the same amount of horizontal space that is exactly seven units.

Then, to represent any of the numbers from zero through nine, each of the seven units is either white or black giving different patterns of black and white stripes. For example, number one is represented by colouring in two white stripes, two black stripes, two white stripes, and one black stripe, while the number two is represented by two white stripes, one black stripe, two white stripes, and two final black stripes and so on.

The process involved
When the barcode scanner reads the bar code using laser technology which is most popular, it translates the bars into numbers or letters. It then sends that information into the computer, or terminal or whatever device it is attached to.
In the case of a supermarket, it would send the numbers to the central computer in the back office, and ask the computer to send back the price and description information that corresponds to the code.

Barcode scanners may be completely handheld, in which case they usually look almost like a science-fiction gun complete with a trigger to turn the scanner on or off. Game store does use this variety. Others may also be built into a surface such as a counter, so that barcodes can be read by swiping them across.

Nakumatt and Uchumi use this type. Everything comes with its challenges, for instance, when you don’t have an emergency power plan in case of a power outage, making a sale might become a huge task. Pricing issues can arise if a wrong price is input into the central database. Damaged labels are also problematic. the upfront cost might be prohibitive for some smaller businesses.

Nonetheless, thanks to barcodes, even tiny “supermarkets” can run as smoothly as the bigger stores these days.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are microscopic programmable transponder tags that become activated when they come within range of an antenna that emits radio frequency signals. Active RFID tags require batteries for power.

Bokodes are a barcode alternative designed by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). With a diameter of a mere three millimeters, bokodes work by placing an LED (Light-emitting diode) light behind a lens and a printed photomask. The desired information is printed on the photomask and readable with a standard cell phone camera from up to 12 feet away. Bokodes hold several thousand times the amount of information that a traditional barcode holds.

QR Codes
Quick response codes, or QR Codes, began in Japan where they have become popular. A QR code is a square image made of pixels. A cell phone loaded with a QR reader application can take a picture of the code and retrieve the embedded information. The information can include a web link, contact information, and can automatically send a free text message or dial an embedded phone number.
QR codes took another step forward with the release of Microsoft Tag. The Tag systems allows for customizable pixellated images to reflect the user’s personal style. Tag also allows business users to track analytic data about accesses to the business’ code.


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