Barcodes are machine-readable codes in the form of numbers and a pattern of parallel lines of varying widths, printed on and identifying a product. We all know that almost every product we come in contact with on a daily basis has some form of barcode on it. But have you ever stopped to consider why? The answer is in the definition. These barcodes are machine-readable. This means they can be used to process information (such as identifying a product) automatically, and automation is the name of the game when it comes to order fulfillment.
Ever used the self-checkout option at Walmart of your favorite retailer? That is only possible with the use of barcodes. When you scan your product into the register, it identifies your product and charges you appropriately. Now think about having to enter the price of each product into the self-checkout cash register manually. Not only would that take forever, but it could also lead to substantial data entry errors and have you paying more or less than you should. Without barcodes, automated self-checkout would not be possible.
But how are barcodes used in order fulfillment and why are they important? The answer is simple, without barcodes identifying which products are being picked or packed would require manual data entry. And just like in our example above could very well lead to errors and would take additional time. Additional order processing time means your order will get shipped slower. Without barcodes, the same-day shipping that 3PL order fulfillment companies like InterFulfillment offer their customer would be out of the question.
When you ship your inventory to a third-party logistics partner, each item must have a SKU (Stock Keeping Unit). This is a series of numbers and or letters that identify each product. Each SKU should be associated with a specific unique barcode. At the time of receiving your inventory is counted and the number of products you are storing will be entered into the system. Whenever a product is picked, a Warehouse Associate will scan its barcode using a hand-scanner. This will allocate the product to the order that is being picked and will deplete it from the system’s inventory automatically. This ensures that the inventory indicated when you run a system inventory report will be the exact same amount of inventory that is on hand at the 3PL order fulfillment center.
In the rare event a Warehouse Associate picks the wrong item, as soon as they scan it, the system will notify them that the product is incorrect right there on their hand scanner. All this data is automated and happens in real-time. When you have a product that is out of stock, you will know. If your products are not barcoded, you may very well sell items that you don’t even have in stock, leading to massive shipping delays and unhappy customers.
As you can imagine, there are some rare exceptions. Like what if your product is too small to include a functional barcode. In cases like these, your products would be stored in a box with a barcode on it. The Warehouse Associate would scan the code on the storage box, thus depleting the inventory. In situations like these, most fulfillment companies will not offer inventory guarantees and may even be unable to perform cycle counts.
Barcodes are pretty amazing, right? That is why they have become a 3PL industry standard, and why having your products barcoded is crucial when shipping your items using an order fulfillment company. If you feel you are ready to begin shipping your orders with a fulfillment center and have yet to include a barcode on your items, what are you waiting for? It doesn’t cost much of anything and only requires a minor adjustment to packaging. Even if you have a lot of inventory that has already been produced, you can add barcodes yourself after the fact using stickers. If you want accurate and quick third-party order fulfillment then you want your items to have SKUs and barcodes, simple as that!