Most barcodes on everyday products around your home are Universal Product Codes (UPC).
UPC codes are a globally recognized inventory system that helps identify products at the checkout and across supply chains. UPC barcodes originated in the grocery industry in the 1970s and are managed by the Global Standards Organization, known as GS1.
In this article, learn about UPC codes, how they work, and how to get UPCs for your products.
Table of contents
What is a UPC code?
While UPC barcodes can take several forms, they’re most often seen as a series of black vertical bars of varying widths. These bars represent a numerical code called a GTIN that’s associated with a manufacturer and a product.
When scanned with a barcode reader, UPCs reveal product information, such as the associated price, brand name, item size, and colorway.
Across retail environments, UPCs offer several benefits:
- Speed up the checkout process: No need to input product details manually.
- Facilitate inventory management: Keep track of product stock and sales across locations.
- Ensure accuracy when picking and packing orders: Minimize errors in order fulfillment.
- Enable product recalls: In case of defective or unsafe products, retailers can identify and recall affected batches.
3 UPC components
A UPC barcode encodes a unique number called a GTIN (global trade item number).
While GTINs typically consist of 12 digits in North America, other regions and specific use cases may use longer or shorter versions.
The GTIN encoded in a UPC can be broken down into three components:
1. Manufacturer identification number
This is a 6-digit number that forms the first half of the UPC. It’s unique to each manufacturer, helping to identify who made the product. You’ll find the same manufacturer identification number on all products produced by the same company.
2. Item number
The following five digits after the manufacturer identification number form the item number. This number is unique not only to products but to each product variant. For example, a 16 GB version of a smartphone will have a different item number than the 32 GB version of the same model.
3. Check digit
The final digit in the 12-digit UPC is the check digit. It’s produced by calculations involving the other digits in the code. This digit validates the UPC to the POS. If incorrect, the UPC won’t scan properly, ensuring accuracy and preventing errors.
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UPC vs. other types of product code
Product identification codes come in various forms. Let’s look at the differences between common acronyms associated with retail products.
A stock keeping unit (SKU) is an internal product tracking code created by a retailer. Unlike UPCs, which are universal and produced by GS1, SKUs are unique to each retailer.
A t-shirt that’s sold in multiple colors and sizes will have a different UPC for each product variation. However, a retailer could assign a single SKU to all variations of the shirt, regardless of its color or size.
In other words, two retailers selling the same t-shirt will use the same UPC but different SKUs.
A GTIN (Global Trade Item Number) and a UPC form a complete barcode. The GTIN is the numerical code contained in the barcode, while the UPC is the scannable part. Together, they provide near-instant product information when used with a POS.
EAN, or European Article Number, is a common product identifier used in Europe. Unlike 12-digit UPCs, EANs contain 13 numbers.
Historically, this extra digit caused issues with many US point-of-sale systems. However, since 2005, a globally standardized set of product coding rules has enabled modern scanners to read both EAN and UPC barcodes. (Despite this, US companies typically stick to UPC barcodes for consistency.)
ASIN stands for “Amazon Standard Identification Number.” As the name suggests, this number is unique to Amazon. It’s often a variation of your product’s UPC barcode but can sometimes be entirely different. It’s Amazon’s way of keeping track of the millions of products on its platform.
How to get a UPC code
GS1 has local offices in more than 104 countries to license UPC company prefixes. GS1 US is the authority that manages the assignment of UPCs within the US.
Remember, you can’t create your own UPC code—they must be purchased from GS1 to ensure uniqueness and validity. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get a UPC:
1. Visit the GS1 website
Start by visiting the GS1 barcode application site and clicking Get A Barcode. For US merchants, you’ll want to go to this UPC application page.
2. Determine how many UPC barcodes you need
Estimate the number of barcodes you need. This depends on the number of unique products you have, including variations in size, color, and other attributes. Each variant of a product requires a unique UPC.
3. Choose the right option
GS1 offers several ways to purchase UPCs. One option is to buy individual GTINs for a small number of products.
A second option is to create a GS1 company prefix. If you need to create UPCs for multiple products (or expect to in the future), a company prefix will allow you to generate GTINs with uniform manufacturer identification numbers to aid product tracking.
4. Provide your information and pay
Fill in your contact information and proceed to payment. Once your payment is processed, you’ll receive your unique UPC codes.
Here’s a quick explainer video from GS1:
Do I need a UPC barcode for my product?
If you plan to sell your products through online selling sites or brick-and-mortar stores, you’ll most likely need to create UPC barcodes for your products. Retailers and marketplaces such as Amazon require products to have unique ID codes, with UPCs being the most-accepted option.
If you sell products directly to consumers through your own store or ecommerce website, you don’t necessarily need to use a UPC barcode. Shopify has a free online barcode generator that you can use to track and organize your inventory.
Even if you don’t currently need UPCs for your products, adding an accepted barcode to packaging can open doors to more sales channels and streamline your retail operation:
3 advantages of using UPCs
1. Speedier checkouts
All POS scanners can read UPCs to identify a product and its associated price instantly, eliminating the need for manual data entry.
2. Global acceptance
3. Organized stock
UPC codes allow for precise tracking of stock levels from production to sale across third-party logistics and shipping companies.
Universal product codes have become the most popular and accepted form of product identification across commerce. By encoding a unique global trade item number into a scannable barcode, UPCs help manufacturers track stock, warehouses fulfill orders, and retail stores quickly process sales.