What Is Universal Product Code | 4 mins read

What is the Universal Product Code? Guide for Beginners

what is the universal product code guide for beginners
Hanh Truong

By Hanh Truong

While they may seem like sequences of random numbers, universal product codes, also known as UPCs, are unique sets of digits that help retailers to identify items.

Almost all consumer products that can be found at any brick and mortar store or online retailer have a UPC and barcode affixed to their tag or price sticker. UPCs allow employees to quickly scan high-volume products and streamline inventory tracking. Additionally, many online platforms require retailers to have these codes for their merchandise.

What is UPC?

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A universal product code (UPC) is a series of 8-12 numbers that identifies a specific item. The UPC is typically printed on the packaging or price tag of a product and also comes with a barcode that can be read by a machine.

Each digit in the code represents a specific attribute of an item. Generally, the first 6 digits are the manufacturer's identification number and the following 5 characters of the UPC are the item number.

The item number is assigned by the company and is based on unique identifiers, such as the product's size, style, or color. The last character in the UPC is the check digit, which is determined by calculating the other numbers in the current code.

The Global Standards Organization is responsible for assigning UPCs to products in the United States.

2 Different Types of UPC Barcodes

There are 2 different types of UPC barcodes that companies can implement into their product identification process.

1. UPC-A

The UPC-A is considered a standard version of UPCs and is the most commonly used code for point-of-sale transactions. This type of UPC is 12 numbers long and utilizes the Global TradeItem Number (GTIN-12), a form of data.

Companies that sell retail merchandise, such as privately owned goods that can be found exclusively at only one store, will use UPC-A.

2. UPC-E

A UPC-E contains only 8 digits, but it also uses GTIN-12 data. These types of UPCs are mostly found on smaller goods that have compact packagings, such as candy and cosmetics.

How to Get a UPC Barcode

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Businesses in the United States that want to use UPC numbers for their inventory products must first apply to Global Standards (GS1). This organization upholds specific requirements for product identification and ensures that each product has a unique UPC number.

When applying on the GS1 website, executive teams will generally follow these procedures.

1. Identify Number of Barcodes
It is important to determine approximately how many barcodes the business will need. Each product that comes in different styles, sizes, or colors should have its own UPC.

For example, if a sweater comes in 3 sizes (small, medium, and large) and has 3 colors (white, black, and grey), the company will need 9 different barcodes.

2. Determine the GTIN
At the bottom of the UPC barcode application website, managers can choose to Get a GTIN. This is recommended for companies that have one product or a shipment of goods.

However, businesses that need many barcodes for a large volume of items should click Get a Company Prefix.

3. Compile Contact Information
Accurate contact information should be inputted onto the application page.

4. Pay
The cost of a UPC number depends on the barcode option that was chosen and how many products need one. Typically, the initial fee of GS1 Company Prefixes ranges between $250-$2,100.

After the payment is processed, executives will receive an email that has specific information on how to use the newly issued barcodes.

Is a UPC Barcode Necessary?

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Generally, companies that sell physical goods will need a UPC barcode to be able to identify each item.

It is recommended that online businesses utilize UPCs to keep track of their inventory. Additionally, many mainstream retail websites, such as Google, Walmart, Amazon, and eBay, require brands to have UPCs on their goods.

Retailers can confirm barcode requirements by researching the platform's vendor requirements. This information is typically located on the store's website.

However, small businesses or individual retailers who are selling merchandise using their own websites may not need to invest in UPCs. Mom-and-pop stores, pop-up shops, and business owners that do not use a point-of-sale system could function without a UPC barcode system.

Since these businesses have smaller amounts of inventory, it may be easier and more cost-efficient to track stock manually without the use of barcodes.

Key Takeaways

  • UPCs, or universal product codes, are a series of numbers that help business owners identify and track their inventory products.
  • Two different types of UPC numbers can be used, depending on the product and its packaging.
  • The implementation of a UPC system depends on the scale of a business and its inventory. If it is decided that a company should use barcodes, executives can apply for them at the GS1 website.