Glossary for Industry Terms

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Universal Product Code (UPC code)

What is a UPC Code?

A universal product code (UPC code) is a unique 12 digit number that helps identify a particular product.

UPC codes are often used to create a corresponding barcode that can be used for Point of Sale systems and standardizing product information across different platforms.

UPC codes are set in line with global standards to ensure a universal system that creates unique IDs between different companies, countries, and regions. Universal product codes are set in line with international standards maintained by the organization GS1.

There are many countries that adhere to the standards and use either UPC or EAN codes, including the United States, European Union, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

How to get a Universal Product Code (UPC)

Universal Product Codes (UPC) are barcodes used in most countries (US, Canada, Australia, European countries) used to track items in a supply chain.

A UPC barcode is encoded with GTIN identification numbers; 12, 8, 13, 14 digits depending on location and preference. In North America, for example, UPC barcodes consist of a 12-digit identification number (GTIN-12).

GTIN or Global Trade Identification Number is a general term that refers to the entire range of UCC EAN data structures. GTIN can come in different data structures, which include:

  • GTIN-12 (UPC-A) – 12-digit number used primarily in North America (US, Canada)
  • GTIN-8 (EAN/UCC-8) – 8-digit number used outside of North America
  • GTIN-13 (EAN/UCC-13) – 13-digit number used outside of North America
  • GTIN-14 (EAN/UCC-14 or ITF-14) – 14-digit used to identify trade items, products, and services at different packaging levels

#1 Apply for GS1 Company Prefix

UPCs can be obtained by first applying to the GS1 to obtain permission to enter the UPC system. Upon approval, GS1 then assigns the manufacturer a digit manufacturer identification number. The UPC symbol consists of two parts: the machine-readable barcode and human-readable 12-digit UPC number. 

Your manufacturer identification number or company prefix is a unique digit used to identify your company as the manufacturer throughout the supply chain. The number of digits in a manufacturer identification number can also vary (6 to 10 characters) depending on the number of products that need to be identified.

A small manufacturer with a single product would receive a 10 digit number. It should be considered since GS1 membership fees are based on the number of products that need to be identified.

#2 Assign item reference numbers

Item reference numbers or product reference numbers can vary in length from 1 to 5 digits based on the manufacturer identification number. Manufacturers who produce many different items, for example, have shorter company prefix, giving them a more extensive selection of digits, they can assign for their goods.

A company with a 6 digit manufacturer identification number can assign up to 5 unique digits for its products. Those with 8 digits can assign up to 3 to make it a total of 11 digits.

#3 Calculate the check digit

The 12th digit on the far right of a Universal Product Code is referred to as the check digit. This digit is used to verify if the scanned UPC is correct or not. To calculate for the check digit, follow these steps from Azalea Software Inc:

Sample barcode data is 69277198116.

  • Add the digits in the odd-numbered positions (first, third, fifth, etc.) together and multiply the total by three:
    6+2+7+9+1+6=31   31×3=93
  • Add the digits in the even-numbered positions (second, fourth, sixth, etc.).
  • Add the two results together:
  • Now what single-digit number makes the total a multiple of 10? That’s the check digit.
    119 + 1 = 120
  • 1 is the check digit. The full UPC number is now 692771981161

Scanners perform a calculation whenever it checks an item. It uses the check digit to verify if the UPC was created correctly. If the scanned check matches, the scanner sends a signal (beep) to indicate that the scan is successful.

Parts of a UPC Code

The use of the Universal Product Code started in 1974. It was designed to help retailers keep track of products that moved through their checkout systems. A standard UPC code consists of three groups of numbers. Typically, the first six numbers indicate the company prefix, the next 5 are the product number, and the 12th is the check digit. 

a. Manufacturer Code/ Manufacturer Identification Number/ Company Prefix – this is a unique number assigned to a manufacturer applying for inclusion into the UPC system. The company prefix can be as short as 6 digits to as long as 10 digits. 

Manufacturers who have a wide selection of items are assigned 6 digits to allow them more options in assigning item numbers. Companies with a limited production line, for example, only produces a single item is assigned a 10 digit company prefix that gives them a single digit for their products.

b. Item Reference Number/ Product Number – these are the numbers assigned by the manufacturer to identify a specific item. Numbers can be assigned according to color, item, flavor, or any distinguishing property. It is also their responsibility to update or remove old numbers assigned to discontinued items.

c. Check Digit – the rightmost number, or the 12th digit in a GTIN-12 UPC, is referred to the check digit. It is used to verify if a UPC barcode is legitimate. The check digit or checksum is calculated based on the first 11 digits of the UPC. 

The difference between UPC and EAN 

GS1 is an organization that is responsible for maintaining global standards for business communication. Its responsibilities include standards for the use of barcode: UPC (Universal Product Codes) and EAN (European Article Numbers).

The most basic difference is that UPC contains 12 digits, and EAN contains 13 digits. The UPC-A was the original standard for barcodes. With the introduction of the EAN, country codes were added. 

UPC  012345-67890-5

EAN  0-012345-67890-5

The UPC and EAN numbers are the same. The bars and spaces as displayed in the barcode, are identical. The only difference is on the human-readable content (visible numbers).

Visually the check number on the UPC is located outside the barcode. Another difference is the addition of a zero in the company prefix for the EAN (012345).

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