Brian King, president of Construction Supply in Farmington, N.M., has put a range of bar code–scanning technology to use at his three-yard building material operation over the years. While bar-coding has always helped ensure the accuracy of $13 million Construction Supply's point-of-sale (POS) transactions, like any technology King has sometimes had to wrestle with it to make it work.

"In the past, everything was proprietary," King says. "You basically had to have the right hardware, and then it had to be specially programmed to work with your POS software." What's more, past generations of "dumb" handheld bar code scanners, the kind that merely stored information to be downloaded into the POS later, could cost upwards of $2,000 each.

These aren't your father's scanners. The MC50 from Symbol (above), is a phone, PDA, and mobile computer that scans 1D and 2D bar codes, while integrating easily with a POS system. But King says that's all changed in the last several years, as bar code scanners and POS systems have become increasingly user-friendly, and useful, in running his business. "The technology has just become much more advanced in the last couple of years," he says. "Now, it's not hardware dependent."

For instance, when King wants to get an accurate, periodic cycle count of buckets of Gray Seal paint or the number of Simpson Strong-Tie hangers he has in his stores, he sends an employee into the aisles with Symbol Technologies' MC50, a smart, plug-and-play wireless bar code scanner. The gun, whose profile looks more like a PDA than a traditional scanner, easily talks in real time with the dealer's Windows-based bisTrack POS system from Progressive Solutions. Not only does that help him know what–and how much–he has on hand of a given product, he's been able to do it without buying multiple new workstations, and today's scanners are cheaper than in the past. "Everything is Windows-based now, so it's all fair game," King says. "The handheld scanner is a Windows Mobile 5.0 device, so you load it up and go. You can even buy a little handheld scanner that goes on your [mobile] phone." While King isn't using that specific application, he says the wireless scanners he's utilizing in his stores are much more affordable than in the past; Construction Supply pays just $800 for its scanners today, compared to $2,300 for its previous equipment.

Observers say bar code scanning today has evolved from a sometimes clunky, expensive technology to a more streamlined, and affordable, solution. Users say the technology not only allows dealers to keep better track of inventory, but also can be leveraged to handle more complex processes, such as order and delivery tracking, as well as automated re-ordering of materials at pre-programmed trigger points. And the scanners themselves have taken on a much higher-tech profile: today, extended-range, cordless scanners can shoot bar codes up to 45 feet away in sunny conditions, perfect for scanning stacked pallets from the seat of a forklift.

"The No. 1 thing with bar code scanning today is that it's really now all plug-and-play," says Graham Rigby, Progressive Solutions' bisTrack product manager. "Adding a bar code scanner to your system is just like plugging in a keyboard. It's really that easy."

Of course, there are still challenges, especially when it comes to the lumber business. For one, aside from the big box retailers, observers say individually bar-coding sticks is still too labor intensive for most yards, though more and more bin numbers are being used to shoot bundles when they're received. And environmental conditions, or even building materials themselves, can interfere with the scanners.

"LBM dealers need a good wireless network and have to consider issues like cold temperatures when scanning outside," says Sarah Bell, marketing director at Latham, N.Y.–based Spruce Computer Systems, which sells ERP and POS software to lumber dealers. "With certain portable, handheld units, metal roofs can also be a problem."

But Symbol, a leading bar code– scanner manufacturer that recently was acquired by Motorola, says it has plenty of options for the rough-and-rugged environment of the LBM industry. "We've got scanners that can withstand multiple drops from a height of 61/2 feet onto concrete, in a range of temperatures from 32 degrees to more than 90 degrees F," says Mike Poldino, Symbol's vice president of marketing. "And our devices are also manufactured to very high sealing standards, to prevent dust and moisture intrusion."

At Construction Supply, King says one advantage of using today's bar code technology is in special orders, especially when they get returned. Using a standard Hewlett-Packard 1320 laser jet printer that he bought at Office Depot, King can print out bar code labels for those returned special orders and keep track of them in his inventory so that his salespeople can know they're available for sale. "Every week, we run a report that says, 'Here are the special orders we have in stock,'" King says. "We send that out to our salespeople, and keep it in front of them, because that's the only way you'll ever get those items sold."

–Joe Bousquin is a contributing editor for ProSales.