Barcodes vs. QR Codes for Inventory Management

September 13, 2023 - 11 minutes read

Deciding between inventory scanning methods isn’t always black and white.


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In the digital age, optimizing the efficiency of your inventory management software system is essential. Choosing the right bar coding technology for your business is one of the best ways to maintain an edge over the competition.

It would be hard to imagine tasks like retail shopping and inventory management without bar coding. The basic zebra stripes first developed to streamline grocery checkout processes dovetailed seamlessly with the advent of the computer as a genuine business tool. The automated, mistake-proof material transfers and shipment tracking enabled by barcodes ultimately led to the massive online order management and multi channel commerce applications we know today.    

Enter QR codes

30 years ago, compact disks were beginning to usurp shelf space from traditional vinyl records, and the new kid on the barcode block was making its own presence felt. By expanding from one geometric dimension to two, QR codes suddenly packed up to 100 times more information into an equally compact space. Despite this upgrade, there are still many applications where 1D barcoding is the better solution.

Are you ready to earn your bar coding stripes? Read on.


What is a barcode?

It might seem obvious, but do we really know what a barcode is and how it works? In simple terms, a barcode is a pattern of black bars and white spaces of various widths that are decoded into letters and numbers once scanned. Inspired by Morse Code consisting of dots and dashes sent over telegraph lines, barcode inventor Joe Woodland originally set his mind on simplifying the grocery checkout process. Spoiler alert: He succeeded.

The most recognizable 1D barcodes today are the universal product codes (UPCs) found on consumer items and groceries. These codes also contain 12 printed numbers that correspond to the manufacturer’s ID and part number. 95 black and white bars are broken into 12 sections, and the codes can be read with a simple laser scanner.


What is a QR code?

2-dimensional QR codes are laid out in a square grid containing a pattern of tiny black and white squares that encode up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters. QR codes date back to the 1990s when the Denso Company in Japan first used them to label and scan automotive parts. While the stripes of a traditional bar code can still be deciphered manually, QR codes require a complex algorithm to encode or decode the pattern.

QR codes can be scanned using an appropriate laser scanner, and most smartphones can also interpret QR codes through their cameras, introducing a host of new applications. Error correction technology is another important element of QR codes that allows them to be read correctly even when up to 30% of the pattern is missing.


Which code is better?

The data carrying capacity and error correction prowess of QR codes might make them seem like an ideal counterpart for advanced inventory management software, but that is not always the case. Depending on your business size and type, traditional barcodes might be a more appropriate and economical alternative.

“If you don’t understand how to run an efficient operation, new machinery will just give you new problems of operation and maintenance. The sure way to increase productivity is to better administrate man and machine.”W. Edwards Deming

Advantages of QR codes

As the beating heart of your organization, your inventory management system should be tailored to the needs and strengths of your company. Before you decide on a bar coding strategy, review the many benefits of QR codes:

  • Scanning from any angle will render the same data in your system
  • A large amount of information can be stored in a single code
  • QR codes are scannable using mobile devices
  • Smaller codes are still readable

Considering these strengths, businesses that want to encode a high volume of information beyond part numbers, such as batch numbers, expiration dates, and geolocation data, should consider using QR codes. 2D codes can also be used to capture lifecycle information like shipping and maintenance data and lend themselves well to field applications, since ordinary smartphones can be used to complete the scan. 

Drawbacks of QR codes

Each eCommerce or retail business needs to streamline every aspect of their inventory management and order fulfillment processes. That means considering the cons of QR codes before investing in sophisticated bar coding infrastructure. The drawbacks include:

  • High data volume from scanning requires high volume data storage
  • Printer issues or harsh elements can make codes unreadable
  • Implementation costs can be high for hardware, software, and training
  • Universally standardized formats have not yet been established
  • Scanning speed can be slower in high volume environments

These potential drawbacks might lead you to consider how well your processes and inventory management software align and whether the data capacity and mobility afforded by QR scans are required for your operation.

Advantages of barcodes

By looking back half a century, we can understand how our simple and reliable zebra stripes found their utility long before computers found their way into our homes. Do these barcodes still have a place in the digital age? The benefits of traditional bar codes include:

  • Less sensitivity to printing issues
  • Low tech equipment and low data storage capacity can support the technology
  • Fast scanning capability for high volume applications
  • Well established, standardized format across the supply chain
  • Compatible with legacy systems and software

Given this list of benefits, it’s easy to understand why high volume, low tech manufacturing processes or emerging small businesses on a budget might choose a traditional barcoding solution over more advanced QR code options.

Disadvantages of barcodes

The simplicity of bar codes can be both a strength and a weakness. While it’s easy to get started with a traditional bar code scanning program for inventory management, there are a few potential pitfalls that need to be considered:

  • Lack encryption to prevent information from being decoded by anyone
  • Much lower data carrying capacity than QR codes
  • Must be scanned from the right angle and distance to read the data correctly

Traditional bar codes are also read-only, which means they are less than ideal for dynamic applications where the information changes frequently. Conventional bar codes are well suited to simpler applications like equipment or components that change very little throughout their lifecycle.

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Evaluating your inventory management and barcoding needs

Now that you understand the pros and cons of barcodes and QR codes, how can you apply this valuable information to your own inventory management tools and practices? Analyzing your business goals and metrics is a good place to start. This includes a study of customer preferences when barcodes are ultimately customer facing, and a thorough evaluation of your data storage wants and needs. Weighing the cost of scanning infrastructure vs your budget is also essential.

Consult with the experts

Joe Woodland may hold the distinction of being the world’s first barcoding expert, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Inventory management and barcoding specialists help you decide on the best path forward for your organization and allow you to design the optimal labels and symbology for your unique inventory items. These experts also understand the importance of label placement for aesthetics, efficiency, and ergonomics.

Barcoding experts can help you integrate new systems with your existing hardware and software while ensuring the new technology is both scalable and customizable. Finally, inventory management experts can assist with training, support, and troubleshooting to ensure a smooth transition.


Bar coding: final thoughts

“The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don’t really even notice it, so it’s part of everyday life.”Bill Gates

It’s no accident that some of the world’s most successful businesses took inventory management and bar coding technology to unprecedented heights. Knowing what, where, and how much inventory is available 24/7 requires automated processes that leverage barcode scanning in real time. Customizing these processes to suit the needs of the organization is the best way to keep technology from overshadowing utility.

The latest bar coding trends underscore the connection between inventory management, customer experience, and brand reputation. By acting as identifiers, trackers, and product labels all at once, bar codes directly impact the customer experience.

Please schedule a free consultation with one of our experts when you’re ready to level up your inventory management and let one of our solution experts help you discover the many ways inventory management software and tools can improve your bottom line.