What is a UPC?

The entire supply chain relies on a series of unique identifying numbers commonly known as bar codes. The bar code consists of a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN). These digits are assigned to identify individual products combining a unique number for the item and a company identifier that differentiates each item as unique to the manufacturer or retailer. A UPC is actually a GTIN specifically used in the U.S. and Canada, providing an essential inventory tool to track, sell, and count items.

1. Defining a UPC

As mentioned, a UPC is the North American variation of a GTIN code. They are standardized using a 12-digit system. The rest of the world uses EANs or European Article Numbers. EANs use 13 digits as they include a number to identify the originating country of the product’s manufacturing company.

The UPC came first and was later followed by the EAN as demand in Europe, Asia and Australia grew. Consequently, both numbers are used for inventory management and Point of Sale (POS). However, in order for UPC codes to be scanned at POS, they must have a GS1 assigned Company Prefix. In essence, GS1 sets the global standard for item/shipment identification and is the official administrator of required Company Prefixes.

2. What separates a UPC from other product codes?

Let’s first look at the bar code. The barcode gets its name from the series of bars used to scan products for inventory or sales purposes. This is the “machine-readable” part of the GTIN. The number that appears beneath every barcode is the “human readable” version enabling cashiers to manually enter the code when the scanning fails. Now, the numbers used on a GTIN determine whether it is a UPC or EAN.

North America uses a 12-digit UPC because it does not require a country code. Because UPCs and EANs are part of GS1’s international standards, they are accepted globally. You might run into issues where you choose to sell your products online. Different marketplaces accept different GTINs, so it is important to have a selling strategy in mind when applying for your GTINs.

Do You Need a UPC or EAN?

It can be confusing to understand whether you need an EAN or UPC code. If you plan to sell online, online sellers must include a product identifier to trade on online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, and Google to identify your products correctly. Major marketplaces tend to require an EAN, and checking to confirm before trying to list with these sellers is important. In turn, this will reduce the risk your eBay, Amazon or Google product listings won’t meet their formatting regulations. While your product labels don’t require an EAN, these marketplaces do insist you use them in the product details.

3. A brief history of UPC

The idea of product codes originated back in the 1970s when the UPC was created for U.S. grocers. The coding system enabled cashiers to easily scan large purchases of multiple items across multiple categories and improved inventory and tracking processes. The original GTIN, the UPC, used 12 digits. The left half of the barcode uses “odd” parity characters representing the numeric digit with an odd number of dark modules, and the right half uses “even” parity characters of dark modules.

The Digits of a UPC

A UPC’s first six to nine digits are the “Company Prefix” assigned by GS1 to identify your company. There are then “product numbers” to identify the individual item, and the final character is the “check digit.” This number is based on a mathematical calculation for the first 11 digits of the UPC code.

How did the EAN Come About?

The EAN was introduced as demand in Europe, Asia and Australia grew. According to UPC code inventor George Laurer, Europe recognized its usefulness after the UPC had been in use for several years. However, they realized a 13th digit was needed to identify the many countries.

In turn, Laurer added the extra digit by encoding the left half of the symbol with three characters of even parity and three characters of odd parity and then arranged them in various patterns to create a different code for each country.  Today, both the UPC and EAN are known as GTINs.

UPCs make managing a large inventory of products easier across multiple marketplaces. In addition, you can use product information management software (PIM) to ensure you remain compliant with marketplace requirements and streamline the product uploading process.