Universal product code (UPC)

Universal product codes (UPCs) are unique 12-digital barcodes that are required for product identification.

They’re usually found on products from North America and Canada. Products from the rest of the world usually have an EAN13 code -but we’ll get into that in just a moment.

Why do you need a UPC?

Let’s say you have an online beauty business and sell shampoo products. You ship hundreds of thousands of shampoo bottles every month to customers around the world. Your UPC number will make each bottle easy to identify. Without a number - nobody will be able to tell one from the other. 🤷

What’s more, if you’re selling to retailers, they’ll need a way to identify your products for inventory management purposes.

What’s the difference between GTIN and EAN?

Depending on where you manufacture your products will depend on the number of digitals in your UPC.

  • GTIN - short for global trade item number, this makes up the 12-digit number that sits beneath the barcode. GTINs are usually found on products from North America.
  • EAN - short for European article number, this is a standard 13-digital number found on products from the rest of the world.

Both GTINs and EANs are recognised by the Global Standards (GS1) - the organisation responsible for international business standards.

What makes up a UPC barcode?

A UPC barcode will have either an EAN13 or GTIN code that sits underneath a machine-readable barcode. That’s the black and white strip you see on product packaging.

Take a look at this diagram which shows the identifiers for each part of the barcode:

  • Number system character - this indicates the type of manufacturer the product was created by
  • For example, 0, 6 and 7 is usually assigned to the retail industry, whereas 3 is for pharmaceutical products
  • Manufacturer number - this is a unique number that indicates what manufacturer created the product
  • Item number - this is unique to each product
  • Check digit - this final number ensures that the rest of the barcode is not tampered with

How to get a GTIN or EAN13 code?

When you start selling products, you’ll need to assign unique product codes to every single one. To do this, you’ll need to apply to GS1 for a company prefix. You’ll then need to assign product numbers. Once you’ve got this bit sorted, you can start printing your own barcodes, or GS1 will send them to you via email or in the post.

Do I need a UPC code if I sell online?

The short answer is - yes. If you’re selling on marketplaces like Amazon, you’ll be required to add your product number to each of your listings. This is so they can keep track of what’s listed in their catalogues.

Having a registered UPC will also show consumers that you’re a legitimate brand, selling legitimate products. 🙌