Unlocking the power of barcodes and variable data labels

barcodes in apparel retail

Unlocking the power of barcodes and variable data labels

You might think there’s nothing more boring than a barcode, but you may be surprised to learn that this simple little gadget is at the nervous system of the entire apparel retail process. In an increasingly digital age, barcodes remain a fundamental tool for ensuring smooth operations and providing customers with seamless shopping experiences.

How do barcodes work and why do we need them?

Barcodes are everywhere in today’s world, playing a crucial role in streamlining operations and enhancing efficiency. But what exactly are barcodes, and why are they so essential, particularly in the apparel industry?

At their core, barcodes are visual representations of data. They’re codes that can be quickly scanned and interpreted by machines. They consist of a series of black and white lines of varying widths, with each combination representing a number. When scanned using a barcode scanner, the encoded information is retrieved from a database, allowing for rapid and accurate identification of products.

In the apparel industry, barcodes are essential for inventory management, tracking and supply chain efficiency. With thousands of SKUs and constant movement of products throughout the supply chain, manually tracking inventory would be a daunting and error-prone task. Barcodes automate this process, enabling retailers and manufacturers to keep accurate records of stock levels, monitor product movement and facilitate timely reordering.

On top of a logistic purpose, barcodes enhance traceability and transparency within the supply chain, allowing stakeholders to track products from manufacturing facilities to retail shelves. This visibility not only improves operational efficiency but also helps to mitigate risks such as counterfeiting and theft.

scanning parcel barcode before shipment

History of barcodes

The history of barcodes dates back to the mid-20th century when Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland first conceptualised the idea of automated product identification. Patented in 1952, their original system was based on Morse Code but didn’t take off commercially for another twenty years.

The first barcode as we know it, known as the Universal Product Code (UPC), was introduced in 1974 and quickly gained widespread adoption in the retail industry. Initially used to automate checkout processes, barcodes soon found applications in inventory management, asset tracking, and supply chain management.

Since then, barcodes have evolved significantly, with advancements in technology enabling the development of more sophisticated barcode systems such as QR codes and Data Matrix codes. These two-dimensional barcodes can store much more data than traditional one-dimensional barcodes, opening up new possibilities for applications such as mobile payments, ticketing, and product authentication.

Today, barcodes are an integral part of modern society, with billions of products scanned and tracked daily in industries ranging from retail and healthcare to logistics and manufacturing.

Variable Data Tags

Variable data tags and labels represent a significant advancement in product identification and traceability, particularly in the apparel industry. Unlike traditional barcodes, which encode static information such as product codes or serial numbers, variable data tags can store dynamic data that varies from one product to another.

These labels can encode a wide range of information, including size, colour, style, manufacturing date, and other unique product identifiers. This flexibility enables apparel manufacturers and retailers to track individual products throughout their lifecycle, from production to sale.

Variable data labels find numerous applications in the apparel industry, including:

Product authentication: By encoding unique identifiers or security features in variable data tags, brands can authenticate products and protect against counterfeiting.

Tracking product lineage: Variable data tags allow stakeholders to trace products back to their origins, providing transparency and accountability within the supply chain.

Enabling personalised marketing campaigns: By collecting data from variable data tags, retailers can gain insights into customer preferences and behaviour, enabling targeted marketing campaigns and personalised shopping experiences.

Young woman hands using the smart phone to scan the qr code to select food menu in the restaurant.Future Trends

Looking ahead, the future of barcode and variable data tagging in the apparel industry is full of promise. As technology advances, we can expect to see further innovation in variable data tagging, with emerging technologies such as RFID integration, blockchain-based authentication, and smart labels offering new opportunities for enhanced product identification and traceability.

These new trends and technologies are poised to revolutionise how products are identified, tracked, and authenticated, ushering in a new era of efficiency and transparency.

RFID technology

One such trend is the integration of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology into apparel tags. RFID tags use radio waves to transmit data wirelessly, enabling real-time tracking of products throughout the supply chain.

This technology offers significant advantages over traditional barcodes, including faster scanning speeds, excellent read range, and the ability to read multiple tags simultaneously.


Another exciting development is the adoption of blockchain-based authentication systems. Blockchain technology offers a secure and immutable way to record and verify transactions, making it ideal for tracking products’ provenance and authenticity.

By leveraging blockchain, brands can create tamper-proof records of each product’s journey, from manufacturing to sale, providing consumers with greater confidence in the authenticity of their purchases.

Additionally, intelligent labels are poised to revolutionise product identification and traceability. These labels incorporate sensors and embedded electronics, allowing them to collect and transmit data about the product’s condition, location, and usage. Smart labels can provide valuable insights into product quality, shelf life, and usage patterns, enabling brands to optimise their supply chains and enhance the customer experience.

Nothing would work without barcodes

Almost everything you buy will have a barcode on it. They are so common in our world they have become a silent but integral part of our everyday life.

They are essential in the apparel industry for their ability to streamline operations, improve inventory accuracy, and enhance supply chain visibility, ultimately contributing to increased efficiency and profitability.

Variable data labels are especially useful in this industry for clothing size, colour and style, or anything that differs from item to item.

The future of barcodes and variable data tags in the apparel industry is bright, with emerging technologies such as RFID, blockchain, and smart labels offering new opportunities for innovation and efficiency.

By embracing these trends, apparel brands and retailers can stay ahead of the curve and deliver superior products and experiences to their customers, which we’ll discuss in our next post.