For many decades, global brands and retailers have relied on linear barcodes for product identification and price look-up at the point of sale (POS). However, demands for increased product and promotional information are now driving the need for new two-dimensional barcodes or ‘2D codes’ that can encode more — often unique — data on each pack. 

The growth in 2D codes presents an opportunity for brands looking to enable data exchange for traceability, supply chain visibility, authentication and consumer safety purposes, as well as promotional and marketing activities. 

Lee Metters, group business development director, Domino Printing Sciences, says, “Society has woken up to the use of 2D codes on a global level. Consumers are now more adept at using 2D codes, due in part to the normalization of 2D scanning facilitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In addition, we have already seen 2D codes used, with great success, in the pharma market, with legislation including the EU’s Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD), the United States’ federal Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) and Russia’s Chestny ZNAK regulation requiring item-level serialization of products via 2D codes.

“This success can now be replicated in other industries to bring a greater wealth of product data to consumers, retailers, and everyone involved within global supply chains. The opportunities presented by 2D codes are such that we anticipate a move away from linear barcodes, with 2D codes at the point of sale in the near future.”

A 2020 report from international standards organization GS1 US revealed that 82% of retailers and 92% of brand owners in the US-supported transitioning from the linear barcode to a single data-rich 2D code within the next five years.

The new GS1 Digital Link barcode standard supports business in the transition towards a single 2D code with embedded Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) for use at POS, and multiple points through a product's lifecycle, including scanning by consumers for promotions, provenance, environmental credentials or even packaging recycling advice.

The transition to 2D codes at the point of sale will be gradual, with linear barcodes expected to coexist alongside 2D codes for several years. However, going forward, all manufacturers and brands should include, at a minimum, the GTIN in every barcode on a pack to provide a foundation where 2D codes can enable new opportunities. 

While the inclusion of additional data would clearly be beneficial for all parties, it must not either force a slowdown of production throughput or result in a significant rise in production waste due to unreadable 2D codes. As a result, brands must ensure that their coding and marking capabilities are designed to work in this kind of data-rich world — with printers and coders designed to handle variable data, and high-speed printing of high-quality, compliant, 2D codes on a range of packaging types and materials.