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What is a Universal Product Code: How They Work & How to Get UPC Codes

By Priceva
on December 13, 2022
No matter what sort of consumer items you sell, the process of identification should be fast and flawless. Retailers and distributors need to quickly scan goods, this is how product codes came to be. This guide dwells upon UPC code – the most commonly used designation in the USA. You will find out how it looks and why sellers need to assign UPCs to each product, how they can be obtained and what makes them different from other codes.

What is a UPC?

A Universal Product Code (UPC) is a code printed on retail product packages to help with their identification. It is divided into two parts – a machine-readable barcode (a unique combination of bars), and a unique set of 12 numbers underneath it.

A UPC barcode is scanned to identify the product and its features, for example, the brand name, color, size, flavor, and so on. Using this code speeds up the checkout process at grocery stores. Also, UPCs help keep track of items in warehouses.

In order to acquire a 12-digit code for its product, a company needs to submit a request to the Global Standard 1 (GS1), a nonprofit group that standardizes tracking inventory and helps to categorize retailers by location. The organization operates in the US, while goods from Europe and other regions often have codes that are different from UPC.

What Does a UPC Look Like?

A UPC is a barcode that consists of contrasting bars and spaces between them – they represent a 12-digit code. Each digit is depicted as a unique pattern of two bars and two spaces. Each bar and space has a specific width (from 1 to 4 modules wide).

The 12-digit combination is divided into several sections that we will describe below.

Parts of a UPC

When a seller pays a fee to join GS1, their business is assigned a 6-digit manufacturer ID number – it becomes the first part of UPCs for all of the company products. In other words, one half of a UPC serves to distinguish a particular seller of a good.

The next five digits represent item characteristics – the company itself is responsible for assigning these numbers. Many consumer goods have additional features like size, color, or flavor. Each variation needs to have a separate designation, for example, a black XS shirt will have a code that differs from a black XL shirt. These characteristics will be reflected in the five digits. It is important to make sure that one five-digit combination is not used several times, and that old UPCs belonging to discontinued items are not utilized anymore or re-assigned to new products.

What about the last digit? The last number is called the “check digit” and serves for accurate checking. It is calculated according to a formula that is based on all 11 digits of the UPC. A scanner will display errors if the check digit it calculates is different from the check digit it reads.

Types of UPCs

You might be confused at seeing codes of different lengths – both of them might be UPCs with a small difference.

UPC-A

This code is regarded as the standard UPC. It is typically used in retail transactions. A 12-digit barcode is also called the “Global Trade Item Number” or GTIN-12.

UPC-E

This type of barcode has 8 digits despite the fact that it encodes GTIN-12 data. Such codes are used on small items (cosmetics, candy, jewelry, etc) when there is not enough space to print a 12-digit one.

How to Get a UPC

You cannot just make up random UPCs for your products – you obtain codes via a global standards organization. Let’s go over the process step by step.

Apply for a Company Prefix

As we have mentioned, a UPC starts with six digits representing a particular company. Hence, a seller needs to get a unique combination that will represent the brand. The UPC company prefix will be used for every product in your lineup.

How to get it? Contact the GS1 organization and buy a code. Be warned though that it may be costly if you opt for a particular number, this is why some businesses decide to purchase “resold UPCs” that used to belong to other companies. The cost of codes ranges from $30 to $10,500 depending on the number of products in the lineup. On top of that, GS1 charges an annual renewal fee (from $50 to $3,000).
This might seem expensive, but an official UPC code from GS1 reduces legal risks that may appear if you buy a fake UPC number from resellers. There’s no way around this step if you plan to sell goods through authorized resellers or marketplaces – UPCs will be used in warehouses.

Create Product Numbers

Now that you have the first half of UPC at your fingertips, you need to assign unique numbers to each of your products. Each SKU needs to have its own UPC, so if you have one item in three color variations, each of them will have a different five-digit combination.

When you buy codes from GS1, the organization will provide you with a set of numbers depending on the number of products you mentioned in your application. They do not assign these numbers to products themselves – you’re given a set of barcodes that you’ll then assign to each product.

Altogether, a company prefix and a product code will give you 11 digits at first, and the 12th number will be calculated according to a formula. The first number will also display your country code.

Determine How you Will Display the Barcode

Barcodes are placed on product packaging so that they can be scanned properly. Bars and the spaces between them should be contrasting for a scanner to read the module width correctly. If you have already created the packaging, you can print and stick a barcode label directly on it.

If you have not created a product package yet, request a digital barcode file from GS1. Your designers should then find a spot to place it and make it readable.

Finish Up

GS1 issues bar codes but is not responsible for design and printing. Unless you incorporate barcodes on your packaging during the process of package design consider using third-party services for this purpose. GS1 recommends Orderbarcodes.com that allows uploading barcodes and designing them.

When you receive your printed labels, place them on the product package in an appropriate way:

  • Barcodes should be visible and scannable in stores or warehouses;
  • You may need two barcodes – one on the product and another on the outer packaging;
  • If necessary, order water-resistant and waterproof barcode labels;
  • After receiving your barcodes, run test scanning to make sure they can be read by machines.

Note that some stores and marketplaces (for instance, Amazon) have specific requirements for UPC barcodes. Read them in detail to make sure that your product batches will be accepted.

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Advantages of UPCs

UPC barcodes are widely used by manufacturers because they have a myriad of advantages for both businesses and consumers. Since they make it possible to instantly identify the brand and the item together with its price, UPCs improve the speed of scanning. They eliminate manual work and boost the speed of handling goods.

Also, UPCs help to track inventory more accurately because all the information about scanned items (including products still in stock) is stored in digital databases. If there is an issue with a certain product, UPCs help to track it throughout its entire lifecycle: from production to retail distribution, and even into the consumer’s cart.

UPC vs. GTIN vs. EAN

You may see different sorts of codes on product packages – not all of them are UPCs. Here are short descriptions for you to understand what is what.

UPC

Universal Product Codes (UPCs) serve to identify a unique product sold via retail chains, online marketplaces and e-commerce stores. Although a UPC cannot be scanned online, it is used by e-commerce businesses for logistical purposes.

GTIN

Global Trading Identification Numbers (GTINs) are the twelve digits found under the UPC code. They are typically used in Canada and the USA, but all major global retailers accept these product identifications in any country.

EAN

The European Article Number (EAN) is the European variation of GTINs: they have 13 digits under the UPC barcodes. EANs are issued by GS organizations outside the USA but can be scanned and accepted around the world.

Conclusion

If you are going to launch an online or brick-and-mortar store, make sure to obtain UPC codes for your products legitimately by applying to GS1. That will enable you to sell on marketplaces, your own website or other stores both in the U.S. and internationally.

Aside from that, a UPC code makes it easy to track your products if you distribute them through resellers. For example, you can use Priceva’s price tracker or MAP monitoring tools that will enable you to get real-time pricing information, and set them up to search for your products by parsing their UPCs.

FAQ

What is another name for a UPC code?

UPC stands for Universal Product Code. This is a bar code that’s printed on the product’s packaging. Don’t confuse a UPC with a SKU (a combination of 8-12 letters and numbers) and a GTIN (12 digits found under UPC codes).

Where is the UPC code on a product?

A UPC is placed on a product’s packaging so that it could be scanned or read easily. Sometimes, sellers place UPCs on both external packaging and the product itself – scanning will be possible even after the item is unboxed.

Do I need a UPC code to sell online?

Unless you have a small batch of products that are distributed and shipped manually and without intermediaries, you need to have UPC codes for your products. Some marketplaces like Amazon have strict requirements for sellers, one of which is having UPCs. Besides, codes are used in warehouses and by postal services for sorting automation and logistic purposes.

Can I create my own UPC code?

When you obtain official UPC codes from GS1, you cannot create the first 6 digits – they will be assigned by the organization. As for the second half, the next five digits represent product characteristics (they are assigned by the retailer), and the check digit (12th) is calculated based on the previous 11 digits.

How much does a UPC code cost?

Depending on the number of products in the seller's assortment, GS1 charges from $30 to $10,500. It also charges an annual renewal fee of $50 to $2,100.

Can two products have the same UPC code?

Yes, if this is one and the same item. Several variations of one item will have different UPC codes.

Do UPC codes expire?

No, when GS1 assigns UPC codes, they stay yours for life. However, the same code cannot be used for different items, so when a product is discontinued, so should be its UPC code. If a manufacturer does not pay GS1 renewal fees, retailers may run into problems when checking the validity of the codes.

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