QR Codes, Barcodes and RFID: What’s the Difference?

QR Codes, barcodes and RFID (radio frequency identification) are all systems for conveying large amounts of data in a small format.  They offer speed, labor savings and cost savings, among other benefits.  But there are distinct differences between all 3 — and differences in the purposes they are best suited for.


A recent trend among small businesses is the growing use of QR codes.  QR codes (pictured below) are similar in one sense to bar codes, in that they contain information which can be read by a QR code reader.

QR codes can be scanned and read by a camera-equipped smartphone when you’ve downloaded a scanner app, such as i-nigma for the iPhone. What this means is that the average person can now de-code (read) a QR code, without special equipment.  You could walk into a place of business, see a QR code on an item, scan it with your smartphone, and immediately have access to a lot of information electronically.

QR Code

QR codes have been around for years.  But in the last 12 months I’ve seen usage skyrocket among entrepreneurs as mobile usages has grown. QR Codes are well suited for marketing purposes, among other uses.  For example, now it is becoming more common to receive business cards with QR Codes on them.  That way, you get access to a lot more information than can fit on a small card.  For instance, you might hand out business cards at an event containing a QR code that leads people to a Web page with a special offer for attendees.  Or the QR Code on a business card might contain a V-card (digital business card) that you can save without having to manually input the card information.

Or you might give out schwag such as a coffee mug, imprinted with a QR code where someone can find out more information about your company.  Or how about imprinting a QR Code on one of those pop-up banners when exhibiting at your next trade show?  Attendees can scan your company’s information by holding their smartphones up to the banner — so you don’t have to shell out for expensive printed materials and they don’t have to lug all that heavy paper home on the plane.

It’s not hard to generate a QR code. You can create one for free online.  In fact, the Google URL shortener automatically creates one for a Web page each time a URL is shortened.  The QR code image above is one I created using the Google URL shortener and it took me all of 2 seconds to create.

QR Codes have infinite uses in small businesses, especially for marketing, now that everybody on the planet seems to walk around glued to a smartphone.  For more information, I urge you to read How QR Codes Can Grow Your Business or download the QR Code Marketing Kit from Sunrise Signs.


Barcodes have been around for decades.  They are versatile with a large variety of uses — especially in retail and manufacturing settings, and in transport and shipping.

We’re used to seeing the common barcode printed on packaging at the grocery store or in other retail outlets, when items are passed over the barcode reader at the checkout counter to ring up a sale.  Barcodes not only are valuable at the point of sale, but also for managing inventory and raw materials internally, so that you know what you have in stock.

Barcodes have become common in shipping, to enable greater accuracy and speed in getting packages delivered.  And barcodes are used to manage large filing systems, library books, and a host of other purposes where large numbers of items need to be tracked efficiently.

Barcodes are relatively inexpensive, and help drive speed, efficiency and profitability.  For ideas about how barcodes can be used, read my earlier article:  Using Barcodes to Manage Inventory Returns.


RFID (radio frequency identification) has likewise been around for decades.  However, RFID tends to require more technological hand-holding.  RFID involves applying RFID tags to items or boxes or pallets.  Tags vary greatly in size, shape and capabilities, but one example is pictured below.  The tag with its small antenna emits a radio frequency signal that is picked up and read by a special wireless RFID reader, conveying information from the tag about the item it is affixed to.


RFID is adaptable to many of the same uses that barcodes are good for.  But RFID is especially useful in situations where vast quantities of goods must be moved or tracked, or where tracking of item-specific information is necessary.  RFID has been mandated by some customers, such as Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense, to track the vast quantities of items they require in their supply chains and to supply much more detailed information. In such situations, RFID maybe able to do it more quickly, effectively and efficiently than barcodes.

I know I’ll get blasted for saying it again, but I firmly believe it to be true:  many small businesses are not ready for RFID.  True, RFID systems have improved, becoming easier and faster to implement than even a few years ago, with more accuracy and less cost.  But for many small businesses RFID would be overkill.  Small businesses may find barcodes more within their budgets and within their people resources to implement and manage.  For more, read RFID or Barcodes: Which Are Better for Small Businesses?


RFID, barcodes and QR Codes all have their place for different purposes and under different circumstances.  As with most technology, the cost to acquire and use it keeps coming down with each passing year.  All 3 of these data management systems also have gotten much easier to implement in the past few years.  So there’s no excuse for not using technology to operate your business more efficiently and effectively — it’s just a question of which technology is better for your needs and your budget.

Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.