At a regional meeting of supply-house owners and managers, a branch manager for a large company came over to talk with me. During our conversation, I asked what the biggest problem that he as a manager had to deal with in the business, and I was rather surprised by his answer, given the size and scope of his company. He said, “Our computer system is a mess. Why, if you sell a part, and want to enter the sale, you just have to know what our company calls it. And sometimes what they call it makes no sense at all. This wastes a lot of time and it makes the training of new people a very long and tedious process.”

Then I asked, “Are you telling me that a company the size of yours still doesn't have bar coding?”

And he replied, “No, we don't have anything like that.”

Could I have been speaking to someone from your company?

You know, this isn't the 20th century anymore, it's the 21st, and bar codes have been a staple in most stores of any size for the past 20 years. Doesn't your company understand the urgent need to update your pricing and computer structure? Having counter personnel search for product names or codes wastes time, which loses customers, and it's inaccurate! How many times do you suppose your company loses money because the counter clerk enters the wrong code or name? Oh, don't worry, if they charge too much, your customers will quickly bring it to their attention. But if you charge too little…

Oh, I'm sure that someone up the company chain will say, “All this takes a lot of time. We would have to shut down all our stores for a week just to implement the process, and we just can't afford that. Besides, think of the cost of all the new computers and scanners, and what it will cost us to change our entire computer system.”

True - but what will happen if you don't? Many of you are worrying about losing business to national builder-supply stores (who save money and move more customers with bar codes), while you fail to update your own company. Aren't you creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? And, isn't there some way to start bar coding all new inventory as it arrives (say, for a year) before installing new scanners and updating your computer system? This doesn't seem to be as great or as expensive a problem as most bean counters think.

What about the extra time it will take to identify incoming parts and put bar-code stickers on them? Well, doesn't someone have to check the parts and enter them into the system now? The computer can print out the stickers as the parts are entered, then all that needs to be done is to have them stuck on the parts, or boxes, before the shelves are stocked. And if you include numbers on the bar codes, it could give counter people one more way to find the right name in your current, confusing computer system until you update it.

Or, could you have your suppliers bar code the inventory before they ship it? How badly do they want your business?

Think about the ease and accuracy of having your counter people scan parts with bar codes. Think about how fast that will be and how many more customers they can serve. Think about the potential higher bottom line due to properly identified and priced stock. Think about how much easier it will be to train new help (and to get rid of some old dead weight). Think about how much faster and more accurate taking inventory can be, and how much longer that will allow your stores to remain open. Think about the fact that this will make your company more competitive against national builder-supply stores. Think about the better impression that this will give customers about your company. What are you waiting for?