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How Do Barcode Scanners Work? (+ Top Picks)

how-do-barcode-scanners-work?-(+-top-picks)
How Do Barcode Scanners Work? (+ Top Picks)

Before barcode scanners, the only way to track products and inventory was by manually counting every item on a store’s shelves and in its back room. 

Most inventories were done infrequently, while ordering decisions were based on crude estimates and arbitrary feelings. Counting, tracking, and managing inventory was time-consuming and expensive. 

Today, thanks to barcode scanning technology, inventory tracking and management happens digitally, in a matter of seconds. But just how does a barcode scanner work? 

Ahead, learn how barcode scanners work, discover the types of barcode scanners, and check out our top picks for the best barcode scanners for retail businesses.

How do barcode scanners work?

A barcode scanner uses a light source, photodiode, and sensor to scan barcodes and detect changes in light intensity in between its black and white bars. Based on the barcode pattern, the scanner creates an electrical signal and sends it to a computer for conversion into readable text that works within a retailer’s database.

Here’s a breakdown of the barcode scanning process: 

  1. Scanning the barcode: The barcode scanner or reader shines a light source, usually a laser or LED light, onto the barcode. 
  2. Generating a pulse pattern: As the scanner moves sequentially across the barcode, specialized photoelectric cells generate an on-off pulse pattern that corresponds to the black and white stripes.
  3. Converting light into an electronic signal: The built-in light sensor or photodiode in the scanner detects and records changes in the light intensity (reflected and non-reflected light) of the barcode pattern. Then, the barcode scanner translates the on-off pulse generated by the reflected light into an electrical signal that an electronic device can understand. 
  4. Decoding the barcode: The digital data or binary code from the scanner is fed into a computer program, which decodes the barcode and sends it to an electronic device attached to the barcode scanner, like a computer or checkout terminal.
  5. Displaying the results: The electronic device converts the data to meaningful information, matching the corresponding entry in the appropriate database, local inventory system, or cloud-based server. Then, the barcode scanner retrieves and presents the encoded information on its display or sends it to a connected electronic device.

This seemingly simple process makes handling inventory tracking, management, and recordkeeping easy, while improving the customer experience.

How do handheld barcode scanners work?

Handheld barcode scanners are user-friendly devices often designed with the following parts for seamless scanning:

  • Standard, rugged, or antimicrobial enclosure
  • Trigger or button
  • Comfortable grip 

These scanners use a point-and-scan functionality and trigger-like mechanism to activate the scanning operation and accurately capture various barcode symbologies, including 1D, 2D, postal barcodes. 

The scanners use radio frequency or Bluetooth technology to integrate with devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops, or retail point-of-sale (POS) applications, and then transmit data, such as inventory updates, in real time. 

How do barcode scanners work on phones?

Modern smartphones have a camera with autofocus that supports barcode or QR code scanning, and Bluetooth and wireless capabilities that allow the phone to be integrated into a barcode system. A barcode scanning app is required to scan and decode a barcode or QR code. 

Through an image reader, the phone decodes a barcode or QR code from a reasonable distance and displays or sends the information to a computer or other connected device. You can also sync a Bluetooth barcode scanner with your phone, allowing your device to act as a database while the scanner reads and transmits the information.

With Shopify Shopcodes, for example, once you install the free app, you can create and download unique Shopcodes for your Shopify store. When a customer scans the Shopcode, they’re directed to a product page or directly to checkout.

You can also incorporate Shopcodes into your marketing by attaching discounts for customers to scan and save instantly. Shopcodes are unique and trackable, so you can see where traffic and sales come from in your Shopify Analytics dashboard.

image of shopcodes on product packaging

Besides scanning barcodes and QR codes, a smartphone with barcode scanning capabilities can also perform other tasks, including:

  • Basic inventory tracking
  • Fixed asset check-in/check-out systems
  • Employee scheduling and dispatching 
  • Tracking employee work hours with barcode timesheets or barcoded time tracking

Types of barcode scanners

As the popularity of barcode readers grows, so do the options available to retailers to capture information. Let’s take a look at eight types of barcode scanners.

CCD devices

A charge-coupled device (CCD), sometimes referred to as an LED scanner, uses a semiconductor and built-in light to convert light into electrical signals. The scanner has hundreds of tiny LEDs arranged in a row, which it shoots directly at a barcode, measuring the voltage of the ambient light rather than self-reflected light. 

A CCD scanner takes several readings per scan to reduce errors and generate more accurate results. The downside of a CCD device is that it cannot read codes longer than the face of its scanner, so you’ll need to keep it within one to three inches of the barcode. 

Laser scanners

Laser scanners are a common feature in busy superstores, built into the base of the checkout lane, under a piece of glass. 

The scanner shines a focused laser light or beam on the barcode, and a sensor or laser photodetector captures the reflected light to read it. You can hold the code several inches or more from the laser scanner, making them exceptionally accurate for reading UPC and EAN barcode formats.

The most advanced type of laser scanner is the omni-directional scanner, which has more lenses and mirrors to reduce errors. And, it can read crumpled, ripped, or otherwise damaged barcodes faster than other laser scanners.

Camera scanners

A camera-based or imager barcode scanner includes an internal video camera, which takes an instant digital photo of a barcode. 

Instead of shooting light at the barcode, the camera scanner uses sophisticated digital decoding to analyze the barcode picture, then reads and decodes the pattern of black and white bars into a digit or number. 

Camera scanners are cheaper and can read dozens of products waved past them more accurately than old-style checkouts.

Pen or wand barcode readers

A pen or wand barcode reader is popular because it’s reliable and inexpensive. 

The mechanism is simple: When you scan a barcode, the scanner’s LED light source, photodiode (or photo detector), and sensor capture and measure the light reflected from the lines and spaces on the barcode. Then, it converts the input into useful digital information.

2D scanners

2D barcode scanners, also known as 2D area imagers, are like camera-based or imager scanners. Other than decoding alphanumeric information, these scanners also interpret codes that contain binary data, including images, voice, loyalty programs, and URLs. 

The scanner uses camera and image processing techniques to capture and read any type of barcode—including stacked, 1D, 2D, and QR codes—off a phone screen or monitor, and in any orientation. Then, it decodes the code with an algorithm and relays the information back to a computer or other electronic device.

With two-dimensional reading capabilities, a 2D scanner captures a more detailed and intelligent image than a 1D scanner, whether you’re scanning outdoors or scanning dirty or damaged barcodes. This makes a 2D scanner an intelligent choice for long-term scanning, particularly in warehousing and logistics setups.

Fixed mount scanners

A fixed mount barcode scanner is mounted in a stationary position or fixed location at a specific angle and distance. Common examples include retail POS systems, checkout counters, or vending machines. 

The scanner comprises a scan engine, housing, and cable. The housing securely mounts the device and protects the scan engine from dust and other environmental elements, while the cable connects to standard equipment for easy installation.

Fixed mount scanners typically use lasers to read 1D, 2D, and direct part marking (DPM) barcodes at high speeds and varying distances with great accuracy. Its laser technology can work under difficult light and ambient conditions, reading even low-contrast and contaminated codes reliably and cost-effectively. It’s a hands-free operation that improves speed, productivity, and accuracy on the job.

You can easily integrate a fixed mount scanner with existing systems for efficient and accurate barcode scanning in high-speed environments, like retail stores, warehouses, assembly lines, and distribution centers.

Wearable scanners

A wearable scanner combines the hands-free convenience of a fixed mount barcode reader with the mobility of a handheld scanner. It’s designed for more rugged use in retail stores, warehouse, field service, and more.

The scanner is typically secured to a user’s finger, wrist, hand, or arm using hook-and-loop closures. Some wearables can include head-mounted devices, which incorporate audio and optical display functions. This frees you up to use both hands, saving you time while improving productivity and reducing repetitive motions and errors.

In-counter scanners

In-counter scanners are mounted to countertops in high-volume retail environments, such as the cashier and self-checkout lanes of large retail and grocery stores, which require high speed and precision.

They’re stationary, like fixed mount scanners, but are commonly integrated into retail POS counters. Thanks to their wide scanning area, in-counter scanners offer fast, accurate barcode scanning on items that pass over them, without needing to point the scanner or trigger the device.

In-counter scanners are high-performing and durable, which ensures quick and accurate barcode scanning and reduces loss. Besides reading product barcodes, the scanners can also read coupons, loyalty cards, personnel badges, and mobile phone codes.

Top barcode scanners for retailers

There’s no one-size-fits-all barcode reader, but here are the top four we think are best for retailers. 

Socket Mobile S700

image of socket mobile's barcode scanner model S700
Socket Mobile

The Socket Mobile S700 is a lightweight, portable, and stylish barcode scanner with a simple, ergonomic design for comfortable use over extended periods.

The scanner connects wirelessly to Shopify POS with Bluetooth. You can quickly add items to the Shopify POS cart at checkout and eliminate errors. Or scan 1D barcodes on customer receipts and find the orders associated with those sales. 

Plus, the Socket Mobile S700 comes with a long-lasting replaceable battery. When fully charged, it can last up to 14 hours, withstanding entire workdays or extended shifts. This makes the scanner ideal for daily operations such as inventory tracking and retail sales. 

Pros

  • Works with Shopify POS
  • Intuitive and user-friendly 
  • Reads all common 1D or linear and stacked barcodes
  • Comes in a variety of colors
  • Compatible with Bluetooth-enabled iOS, Android, and Windows devices

Cons

  • Doesn’t read 2D barcodes
  • Limited one-year warranty

Price: $239

Socket Mobile S720

image of socket mobile barcode scanner number s720 offered by shopify
Shopify

If you use 1D and 2D barcodes, take a look at the Socket Mobile S720.

The fast, 2D omni-directional barcode scanner can read 1D and 2D barcodes on paper and screen, and has a long-range Bluetooth connection of up to 33 feet (10 meters). It has a 16-hour battery life and a lightweight, ergonomic structure for comfortable use over extended periods. 

The scanner also comes with an Auto Scan mode for continuously scanning barcodes without needing to press the Scan button, and an LED aimer for precise pointing. A charging dock is included for conveniently charging and storing the scanner.

Pros

  • Lightweight and ergonomic
  • Long-lasting battery
  • Can read poorly printed and damaged barcodes
  • Works with Android tablets and iPads 

Cons

  • Expensive compared to other options

Price: $289

NADAMOO wireless barcode scanner

image of NADAMOO barcode scanner on white background
Amazon

The NADAMOO barcode scanner can work as a wireless or stationary scanner, reading 1D linear barcodes and processing up to 260 scans per second in real time. 

You can connect it to a computer via a USB dongle or cable, then key the trigger manually for the scanner to read the barcode. Or just switch to continuous scan mode, which keeps the red laser always on and scans barcodes without needing to press the trigger.

The scanner has two pairing modes: one-to-one mode, where only one scanner can transmit barcodes to a single USB receiver, or more-to-one mode, which allows multiple scanners to transmit barcodes to a single USB receiver. The latter is ideal in a retail environment where several people are scanning at once. 

NADAMOO also offers two working modes: instant upload mode and storage mode. In instant upload mode, the scanner reads a barcode and uploads it straight to the file you opened. Storage mode is ideal when using the scanner outside of the wireless signal range. It can scan and store up to 100,000 barcodes directly into the scanner’s built-in memory, then update the data to your device when you’re back within wireless transmission range.

The scanner’s duplicate detection function reduces errors by emitting an error beep if it scans the same barcode it just read. It also has a large battery, which, when fully charged, can perform up to 2,000 scans in a day, which can improve your work efficiency.

Pros

  • Long transmission range
  • Can read reverse barcode, UPC/EAN, and extra code
  • Long battery life 

Cons

  • Can’t scan 2D or colored barcodes 
  • No mobile device support
  • Can’t read barcodes printed on colored labels

Price: $34.99

Zebra DS2208

image of the Zebra DS2208 barcode scanner
Shopify

The Zebra DS2208 is an ideal countertop 2D barcode scanner for Shopify POS on Android devices. The scanner comes pre-configured and ready to use right out of the box, making it easy to deploy and manage in any location.

Thanks to its omni-directional scanning, the device works in all light conditions, at all angles, and on most forms of media. When in its gooseneck stand, the DS2208 scanner is automatically set to hands-free. So, any barcode—colored, damaged, or faded—that passes into the field of light is sent directly to a computer or other electronic device. 

And with Zebra’s PRZM software decode algorithms, the scanner can read and decode both standard UPC barcodes and 2D QR codes. This makes it perfect for scanning QR codes for customer registration and mobile couponing, as well as shipping labels.

Pros

  • Scans colored, faded, and damaged barcodes
  • Easy to deploy, use, and manage
  • Small, lightweight, and ergonomic structure
  • Wide reading window for rapid image capture
  • Five-year warranty

Cons

  • Only works with Android devices
  • No wireless or Bluetooth capability

Price: $199

Upgrade your retail store with a barcode scanner

The right barcode scanner for your business improves productivity and efficiency by making it faster to catalog, track, and manage your inventory across locations. Plus, it reduces human error and accurately improves transactions for your customers. 

When choosing a barcode scanner, think about features, your budget, and your business goals and needs—what might suit some retailers might not be right for you. 

Manage inventory from one back office

Shopify POS comes with tools to help you manage warehouse and store inventory in one place. Forecast demand, set low stock alerts, create purchase orders, know which items are selling or sitting on shelves, count inventory, and more.

Discover Shopify POS

Barcode scanners FAQ

How do barcode scanners send data?

A barcode scanner captures an image by camera or reads a barcode by light reflection. Then, it uses an algorithm to decode the image or code into readable and meaningful data. Once it matches the text or information with an entry in the retailer’s database, the scanner retrieves and presents the encoded information on its display or sends it to a connected electronic device, like a computer, cash register, or checkout terminal.

Can two products have the same barcode?

Yes, two products can have the same barcode. For example, if you have a batch of 50 blouses of the same type, they would all receive the same barcode number. You won’t need 50 unique barcodes for each blouse. Managing inventory and tracking sales requires only individual barcodes for each product—not for each individual item.

How do laser barcode scanners differ from other types of scanners?

Laser barcode scanners are built into the base of the checkout lane, under a piece of glass. Unlike other scanners, which capture the image of the barcode before analyzing it, a laser scanner shines a focused laser light or beam on the barcode surface, then uses a laser photodetector to capture the reflected light, scan, and decode the barcode. Omni-directional laser scanners can read crumpled, ripped, or damaged barcodes faster and with exceptional accuracy than other types of scanners.

Can barcode scanners read both 1D and 2D barcodes?

Not all barcode scanners can read 1D and 2D barcodes. Only 2D barcode scanners can read linear and two-dimensional barcode symbologies, such as 1D, 2D, and stacked barcodes, QR codes, and more.

This article originally appeared on Shopify Retail Blog and is available here for further discovery.
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