Very early on in SCDigest's history, which dates to September 2003, I remember writing an article about the many different bar code labels on some item we purchased from I believe the JC Penney catalog for store pick-up.
I cannot find that original piece, but I remember it was a crazy number of labels, and the box looked like a ransom note of bar codes applied by a number of different supply chain players involve in making, store, shipping, delivering and receiving that item in-store.
So where do we stand in 2017? Better, I would say, but it's still interesting.
I recently ordered an HP inkjet printer for my wife from Amazon.com. Naturally, on the outside of the box was a 4x6-inch Amazon shipping label with all the delivery information (address, etc.), plus a USPS tracking system bar code at the bottom, as you see here.
I can't recall if Amazon ever used a shipping label that contains another label in case a return is needed that is like embedded underneath the main shipping label construction, but they certainly don't any more. You submit the return request on-line and then print out your own return label.
That makes sense for at least two reasons: first, the embedded return label is far more expensive than the basic 4x6 variety, and a relatively small percent of customers in general request returns. So that is a lot of expense on every label for a convenience only of benefit for those customers needing a return.
Second, in theory at least, the on-line approach means Amazon can make real time decisions about where to send the return and what carrier to use.
Next, there is about a 2.5x3-inch HP label with bar coded product serial, HP SKU and UPC numbers, along with some related human readable text, as shown below. That of course is to be expected.Now as seen here, there are two more small bar code labels that have been applied on the inside of the top flap. One is a serial number bar code. I am fairly confident the serial number label is simply grabbed and applied from a pre-printed roll of sequential numbers, and then is scanned to generate the 2.5x3 label on the outside of the box as described above.
I am not sure what the other label/bar code is. It is not the SKU number, and has a structure somewhat like a serial number, but can't be another serial number, so I do not know what it is or why it is needed.
Finally, on the outside of the box is one more label with a bar code. The number encoded is odd, and it was obviously hand applied, so I am not sure at all what this label is, but suspect it was added and I assume scanned either by a 3PL involved in shipping the product or by one of the carriers involved in its transit.
So there you have it. Five total bar code labels, three of which have a clear purpose and two of which are more mysterious. I have to wonder that even if someday RFID really starts to take over that we will still need most of these same labels to provide the human readable info that helps humans process the information and provide a back-up in case the RFID chip fails.
Bar codes will be with us for a long time, I am sure of that.