Woman printing UPC Codes from barcode printer

The UPC code is an essential part of product identification and are most common in the retail industry. Selling a product on Amazon, eBay, or Walmart is almost impossible without them. Since their invention, these handy digital markers have played a significant role as global identifiers that allow product selling and tracking through supply chains.

In this guide, we’ll discuss UPCs in close detail and answer valuable questions regarding their basic structure, explain their use on products, compare them with other standardized codes, and tell how to purchase them.

What Is a UPC Code?

Sonim RS60 Mobile Computer scanning UPC Code
A worker using the Sonim RS60 Mobile Computer to scan a UPC Code

Many people may not be familiar with the name “UPC,” but everyone has undoubtedly come across one. The UPC or Universal Product Code has been around since 1974, and consumers know it as a barcode on an item that the cashier scans when a customer is checking out of a store or when trying to identify information about that product. You can also see them on pretty much every manufactured product, from candles to dressers.

The primary purpose of UPCs is for manufacturers to seamlessly identify and keep track of their products electronically. With digitally scanned products, one can effectively manage the flow of products in and out of the warehouse, a grocery store, or any other shop type. These barcodes make it easy to track inventory, manage stock, or print receipts.

There are many other barcode symbologies, but the UPC is one of the most common ones. It’s a primary solution for retail inventory tracking systems in the U.S, Canada, and many other countries.

Parts of the UPC Code

An example UPC code from 1 and onwards
An example of a UPC Code

Each UPC consists of two parts: a barcode and a 12-digit unique code. The barcode consists of black and white parallel lines of various widths. Each digit (numerals from zero to nine) has its own width corresponding to a specific pattern.

Every barcode has a start code and an end code. These codes consist of black, white, and black bars with a one-unit width. The bars that indicate the code numbers are between the start and end codes.

While the machines are the ones to read the barcode, the printed numbers that comprise the second part of the UPC are for humans to use. These numbers are more like a backup option when the scanner doesn’t read the barcode, so a person can manually insert it.

What Do the 12 Numbers Represent?

Scanning UPC Code from Pickle Jar through iPhone App

All UPCs consist of three groups of numbers, each group serving a specific purpose. The first six numbers in a code are unique to the manufacturer and serve as its authentication. We call the very first digit a “number system character.” It’s always at the far left of the UPC number, and here’s what its value represents:

  • 0 – Standard UPC number, which is a must for zero-suppressed numbers
  • 1 – Reserved
  • 2 – Fruits, vegetables, and other items that sell on a random weight
  • 3 – Pharmaceuticals
  • 4 – In-store retail marketing that each store can set up independently from others
  • 5 – Coupons
  • 6 and 7 – Standard UPC numbers
  • 8 and 9 – Reserved

The next five digits are unique to the item. The person working with the manufacturer can assign these numbers to products while ensuring each item has a unique number combination. The first three digits in this set are the “family code,” while the next two are the “value code.”

The UPC coordinator assigns each product with these sub-codes to offer coupons for a particular family of products. For example, the skincare company Nivea can provide coupons for a specific set of shower gels, but not shampoos. That’s when identifying the family code can come in handy.

Ultimately, the final number is the checksum (also known as the check digit.) The check digit checks for errors, and you can see it at the far right of the UPC number. Thanks to it, the scanner performs an internal algorithm that confirms the accuracy of the UPC number.

Sometimes, products can have much shorter codes consisting of eight digits total. We call these bars zero-suppressed numbers. The principle is quite simple – leave out the four digits (all zeros) of the code. The idea is to create small bar codes for small products. You may notice how many soda cans display zero-compressed bars.

Is the Price Info Included in the UPC?

No. UPCs don’t carry price information. Every time a cashier scans the code, the store’s internal system will look for that product against the current price showing in the database and send it back to the scanner (or a computer.) This way, the retail owners can change prices without printing new UPCs every time the price changes.

How to Buy UPC Codes?

Buying UPC Codes online using ipad and credit card

You should follow these four simple steps to get UPCs for your products:

  1. Get a UPC Company Prefix. This is a six to 10-digit long code that shows at the front of your UPCs. You should also decide on the number of UPCs you need at this point.
  2. Create GTINs (global trade item numbers) or unique product numbers for each product. You should also identify the package types such as pallets, cases, boxes, and similar.
  3. Define the way your product will show UPCs. At this point, specify whether you need the barcodes for warehouse use or scanning at the checkout, or maybe for selling products online.
  4. Get accurate UPCs for each product. GS1 US Data Hub is a great place to create barcodes for free.

There are two ways of buying UPCs: with reseller websites or with GS1. What exactly is GS1, you may wonder? It is a company that has set the standard for UPC and other barcodes ever since 1973. You, as an individual company, can’t create your own UPCs. To receive your unique code, you need to obtain a Company Prefix with GS1.

The main difference between buying a cheaper UPC from the resellers and the one with the GS1 is that the former won’t assign you a Company Prefix. However, by purchasing one, you get a unique ID for your company, which will appear on UPCs you buy for your products. This way, only your company can use the prefix that will show in the GS1 company database.

The most secure (and expensive) option is buying UPCs directly from GS1. They require at least 100 UPC symbols for a minimum cost of $750, plus an annual renewal fee starting from $150. However, if you plan on selling your product with a specific retailer, ask them whether they require UPCs. If not, you can save money by buying from resellers.

Buying from Resellers

Many website resellers will purchase the codes in bulk, and you can then get as many as you want from them. A downside of these selling points is that they don’t list your name as the manufacturer. Also, you can end up buying invalid or already used codes. For this reason, be extra careful and only buy from legitimate resellers. Follow these tips when purchasing a UPC from these companies:

  • Steer clear from resellers offering UPCs for much less than the competition.
  • The barcode should come from a prefix from the UCC (GS-1-US) before the 2002 Class Action Lawsuit.
  • The reseller should be a government-registered business.
  • There should be some contact information available, including a phone number, email, or a physical address.
  • The reseller should have a legitimate website and not sell only barcodes on auction websites.

If you plan on selling on Walmart, you’ll most likely have to purchase UPCs through GS1. Here are some other companies that require GS1:

  • Kroger
  • Macy’s
  • Home Depot
  • Costco
  • Lowe’s
  • Bloomingdale’s
  • Sears

Other retailers such as Amazon, Whole Foods, Walgreens, K-Mart, Target, QVC, and JC Penney’s might require a GS1-issued UPC.

Tip: There’s no need to pay fees to GS1 if you plan on using the barcodes internally for your organization. The GS1 has a special list of prefixes for the internal communication system used under “Restricted distribution (MO defined)” on this page.

Women using UPC barcode Machine Printer

When printing a UPC, you want to ensure the highest possible printing quality. Otherwise, you might encounter negative effects such as difficulty or even the inability to scan the product code. In silk-screening, for example, you must calculate the occurrence of ink spread and incorporate the bar width reduction into the film master.

However, the ink spread may decrease the barcode size-reduction flexibility. If the barcode is too tiny, silk screening might blur the bars together. That’s why you should keep the barcode within 80% of its nominal size. The less altering you do to the UPC design, the better. Note that there are various graphics file formats, but the barcode designs should only be printed in the .eps format.

It’s best to position the barcode on the side of the item packaging and have the bars run in the same direction as the ink flows while printing. That way, printing can only affect the bar length, which is less critical for readability than width.

There are quite a few factors that decrease barcode readability you should consider:

  • Poor color contrast
  • Printer’s inefficacy at creating condensed images
  • Smudges
  • Reduced visibility
  • Printing material and equipment

Sometimes using printed barcode labels in the form of stickers is the ideal solution. This is primarily the case when the packaging has already been printed, products that don’t have the packaging, or there are only small quantities required.

While you can use various printer types such as inkjets, laser printers, and direct thermal printers, the latter are the best devices for printing barcodes on paper.

Using UPCs on the Product

Scanning UPC Code with Mobile Computer

A lot of retailers wonder how many UPCs they need for one product. Determining the number of UPCs for each product is quite simple. Each product you plan on selling needs a unique code.

For example, if you’re selling a blue medium-sized T-shirt, you should print a unique UPC for it. The same shirt in white or in a smaller size will have a different code. Each variant of your product will have its UPC.

This system also refers to the packaging size. For example, if a manufacturer sells a package of three water bottles and a package of six, each one should have a unique code. Or, for instance, a 12-ounce Pepsi bottle must have a different number than a 16-ounce one.

UPC Code Pros

  • Accurate data capture reduces paperwork and data entry errors
  • Reduces labor costs and training time
  • Timely information exchange
  • Increases productivity levels
  • Enhanced decision making

UPC Code Cons

  • Costly scanning equipment
  • The labeling process can be time-consuming
  • Potentially low ROI for small businesses with few orders
  • Lower performance in inventory tracking compared to the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
  • Questionable print quality


Warehouse scanning using Mobile Device Scanner

Next to UPC, European Article Number (EAN) is another standard barcode in the retail industry. It’s widespread in Europe and other countries other than the U.S. and Canada that mainly use the UPC.

The Universal Product Code is the original product barcode. As demand started increasing in Europe, Asia, and Australia, manufacturers began adding country codes to the barcode, increasing the number to 13 digits.

Graphic-wise, there’s no difference between the two solutions. The EAN also consists of the same bars, and the spaces between them are the same as in UPC. What is different, however, is the number section. These are only there as backup, and technically, the two codes are the same but used in other geographical areas. Also, since 2005, all retail scanners can read both the UPC and EAN codes, making the difference between them less noticeable.

If your business takes place in the U.S and Canada, we recommend sticking with UPC. You can always convert your UPC to EAN by adding the country code (0) to the beginning if you decide to expand the business overseas. The two North American countries share the same country code that their respective POSs (Points of Sale) don’t print under the barcode. Many retailers may even use the old systems that only allow entering 12-digit UPCs rather than a string of 13 numbers.

Get Your Coding Right

rugged mobile device scanning equipment
An electric worker using the Sonim RS80 Rugged Tablet
to scan codes

Companies with many orders and products that plan on selling with retailers can significantly benefit from GS1-verified UPCs. The implementation process may take a bit longer (labeling thousands of products sure takes time), but it’s worth it in the long term. Businesses that plan on using UPCs for internal management purposes, on the other hand, can save hundreds of dollars annually by purchasing codes from resellers.

Hopefully, after reading our article, you now understand what UPCs are, how to use them, and whether you need to spend money for GS-1 personal manufacturer IDs or not.

Contact Us

If you’re looking for powerful UPC scanners that also serve as fully functional mobile computers, you can check out the Honeywell CT60 mobile computer, or the Getac T800 rugged tablet. For help with finding the right mobile scanner for your business reach out to an Energy Electronics sales rep for an expert recommendation and bulk quotes.