What is a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN)?

The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is used in barcodes providing a unique identifier for products. There are two main types of GTINs: 1) the Unique Product Code (UPC) used in North America, and 2) the European Article Number (EAN) used in the rest of the world. In fact, the UPC was the original number created in the U.S., with the EAN following as demand grew in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Consequently, GTINs are essential to the entire supply chain for retailers, manufacturers, and distribution companies.

1. Defining a GTIN

GTINs are a family of GS1-standardized global data structures. It is an umbrella term used to describe various GS1 numbering strings. For example, GS1 sets the global standard for item/shipment identification and is the official administrator of Company Prefixes, the unique business identifier included in a GTIN.

As mentioned above, the GTIN encompasses both the 12-digit UPC used in North America and the 13-digit EAN used in the rest of the world. In other words, it is the human-readable part of a barcode that represents the numbers of the scannable machine-readable bars above.

2. What separates a GTIN from other product codes?

In essence, a GTIN isn’t separate from other codes. Instead, it is the “parent” for the family of codes generated by GS1, the non-profit organization responsible for maintaining the following standardized data structures:

  • North America uses 12 digits with GTIN-12 (UPC-A)
  • Countries outside of North America predominantly use 8 digits with GTIN-8 (EAN/UCC-8)
  • Countries outside of North America use 13 digits with GTIN-13 (EAN/UCC-13)
  • Trade items are identified at various packaging levels using 14 digits with GTIN-14 (EAN/UCC-14 or ITF-14)

A GTIN consists of a “Company Prefix” assigned by GS1 to identify your company. In addition, it uses product numbers to identify the individual item, a “check digit,” and a country identifier for EANs. Essentially, the product numbers depend on the length of your company prefix as these numbers combined can’t exceed 12 digits. As a result, the final digit is a “Check Digit” calculated using the GS1 digit calculator.

3. A brief history of GTIN

The 70’s

The UPC was designed in the early 1970s to automate the grocery checkout process. Initially, the goal was to reduce labor costs, improve inventory control, and speed up the checkout process to improve customer service. So, Six industry associations were involved, including product manufacturers and supermarkets. In turn, it took two years for IBM to create the first UPC barcode in 1971, and in 1973 the first pack of gum was scanned.

Soon after, the UPC became a universal product identification symbol. After several years, Europe caught on they should adopt the same coding system. The International Article Numbering Association, now known as GS1, added a number at the front of the code to represent different countries, creating the EAN.

Consequently, the family of codes known as GTINs improves supply chain efficiency. In fact, it took over three decades to get here. Following the launch of EANs, the EAN Association recognized the opportunity to use the same coding system throughout the entire supply chain.

The 80’s and 90’s

So, In 1983 they launched an identification system that enabled the use of barcodes on wholesale multi-packs. This step increased the reliability and accuracy of product identification throughout the entire supply chain. In turn, the GS1 was created in 1990 as a single organization for 45 countries using GTINs. As of today, the GS1 includes over 100 countries.

GS1 standardization ensures scanning software and hardware can read all GTINs around the globe. As GTIN use expanded, different classifications had to be created to help retailers, manufacturers, and suppliers maintain unique product identities and improve compliance. As a result, in 1999, Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated UPCs saved the grocery industry $17 billion each year and predicted the industry could see billions more in savings by maximizing the use of UPC codes.

The 2000’s

In 2002, the Global Standards Management Process provided a forum for GS1 members to discuss standards. Soon after, the acceptance of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Chips led to a standard to implement its use in the system in 2004.  Then, in 2007, the emergence of e-commerce inspired GS1 to develop open standards giving consumers direct access to key product information. As a result, major marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay require an EAN as part of their formatting and product detail requirements.

GTINs are an essential tool in managing large inventory volumes at all stages of the supply chain. In other words, they are the foundation of product management for both retailers and e-tailers, which can see even more efficiencies using product information software (PIM) to improve compliance in the product uploading process.