Universal Product Code (UPC)

What is a Universal Product Code (UPC)?

A UPC, short for universal product code, is a type of code printed on retail product packaging to aid in identifying a particular item. It consists of two parts – the machine-readable barcode, which is a series of unique black bars, and the unique 12-digit number beneath it.

The purpose of UPCs is to make it easy to identify product features, such as the brand name, item, size, and color, when an item is scanned at checkout. In fact, that’s why they were created in the first place – to speed up the checkout process at grocery stores. UPCs are also helpful in tracking inventory within a store or warehouse.

To obtain a UPC for use on a product a company has to first apply to become part of the system. GS1 US, the Global Standards Organization, formerly known as the Uniform Code Council, manages the assigning of UPCs within the US.

Parts of a UPC

After paying a fee to join, GS1 assigns a 6-digit manufacturer identification number, which becomes the first six digits in the UPC on all the company’s products. That number identifies the particular manufacturer of the item.

The next five digits of the UPC is called an item number. It refers to the actual product itself. Within each company is a person responsible for issuing item numbers, to ensure that the same number isn’t used more than once and that old numbers referring to discontinued products are phased out.

Many consumer products have several variations, based on, for example, size, flavor, or color. Each variety requires its own item number. So a box of 24 one-inch nails has a different item number than a box of 24 two-inch nails, or a box of 50 one-inch nails.

The last digit in the 12-digit UPC is called the check digit. It is the product of several calculations – adding and multiplying several digits in the code – to confirm to the checkout scanner that the UPC is valid. If the check digit code is incorrect, the UPC won’t scan properly.

Advantages of UPCs

UPCs have a number of advantages to businesses and consumers. Because they make it possible for barcode scanners to immediately identify a product and its associated price, UPCs improve speed.

They improve efficiency and productivity, by eliminating the need to manually enter product information.

They also make it possible to track inventory much more accurately than hand counting, to know when more product is needed on retail shelves or in warehouses. Or when there is an issue with a particular product and consumers who purchased it need to be alerted or a recall issued, UPCs allow products to be tracked through production to distribution to retail stores and even into consumer homes.

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