UPC Number Guide 2024: Master the Essential Basics (2024)

UPC Number Guide 2024: Master the Essential Basics (1)

Why UPC Numbers Are Important

UPC numbers (Universal Product Codes) are everywhere. These 12-digit barcodes are the key to unlocking fast and accurate product identification across various retail and supply chain environments. Let’s break it down:

  • Definition: A Universal Product Code is a unique product identifier in a barcode format.
  • Importance: Speeds up checkout, helps manage inventory, and ensures accurate order fulfillment.
  • History: First scanned in 1974 at Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, UPCs revolutionized retail and are used around the world today.

These small but mighty codes started in the 1970s and since then, they’ve changed the way we shop. Before UPCs, grocery stores had to apply price stickers to every item manually. Scanning UPCs, introduced in 1973 by the Global Standards Organization (GS1), saved time and reduced errors, paving the way for modern retail.

I’m Will Mitchell, with over 20 years of experience in e-commerce and barcode systems. I’ve consulted for Fortune 500 companies and led StartupBros to help thousands of entrepreneurs like you. Let’s dive deeper into what makes UPC numbers indispensable for your business.

UPC Number Guide 2024: Master the Essential Basics (2)

What is a UPC Number?

A Universal Product Code (UPC) is a unique identifier for products, commonly used in retail to streamline inventory and sales processes. It consists of two main components: the GTIN and the barcode symbology.


A UPC number is a 12-digit code that uniquely identifies a product. It’s part of the broader family of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs), which are used worldwide to identify items, services, and products.

Components of a UPC

A complete UPC-A barcode is 95 modules wide, including:
S (start) guard pattern: 3 modules wide
L (left-hand side digits): 42 modules wide
M (middle) guard pattern: 5 modules wide
R (right-hand side digits): 42 modules wide
E (end) guard pattern: 3 modules wide
Quiet zones: 9 modules wide on each end

UPC Number Guide 2024: Master the Essential Basics (3)

Each digit in the UPC is represented by a series of black and white bars. The left-hand side digits have odd parity, while the right-hand side digits have even parity. This helps scanners determine the direction of the scan and ensures accurate reading.

GTIN: The Foundation

The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is the number that identifies products globally. A 12-digit UPC is a type of GTIN. Other types include the EAN (used in Europe) and the JAN (used in Japan). These numbers are essential for tracking and managing products across different markets and platforms.

Barcode Symbology

The barcode symbology for UPCs is based on a series of black and white bars that encode the 12-digit number. The specific patterns of bars and spaces are designed to be read by optical scanners, which can quickly and accurately capture the encoded data.

GS1 US: The Authority

GS1 US is the organization responsible for issuing UPCs in the United States. They ensure that each UPC is unique and valid, preventing conflicts and errors in product identification. To get a UPC, businesses must purchase them from GS1 US, which supports over 104 countries with local offices.

Why It Matters

Having a unique UPC number for your product is crucial for global identification, sales tracking, and inventory management. Retailers like Amazon require UPCs to list products, making them indispensable for modern commerce.

Next, we’ll explore how UPC numbers work in everyday business operations, from scanning at the point of sale to managing inventory and ensuring recall accuracy.

How UPC Numbers Work

Scanning Process

When you see a UPC number on a product, it’s not just a bunch of black lines and numbers. It’s a key to a treasure trove of information. At the point of sale (POS), a barcode scanner reads the barcode by shining a laser on it. This laser detects the pattern of black bars and white spaces, which represent a unique 12-digit number.

The scanner then sends this number to the store’s computer system. Instantly, the system retrieves all the product details—price, brand, size, and even color. This makes checkout super fast and reduces human error.

Point of Sale

At checkout, the UPC number does more than just speed up the process. It also ensures accuracy. No more manual entry means fewer mistakes. Imagine if cashiers had to type in every product code! Plus, it helps in keeping the lines moving, making customers happier.

Inventory Management

Inventory management is another big win with UPC numbers. When a product is scanned, the system updates inventory levels in real-time. This helps stores know exactly how much stock they have at any moment. No more guessing or manual stock counts!

Retailers can also track sales trends and decide when to reorder products. This keeps shelves stocked and customers satisfied.

Recall Accuracy

Product recalls can be a nightmare, but UPC numbers make them manageable. If a product is found to be defective or unsafe, retailers can quickly identify and recall the affected batches. The UPC number helps trace the product back to its source, ensuring that only the problematic items are removed from shelves.

This precision minimizes the impact on both customers and businesses.

In the next section, we’ll look at the benefits of using UPC numbers for global identification, sales tracking, inventory management, and recall efficiency.

Benefits of Using UPC Numbers

Global Identification

One of the biggest perks of using UPC numbers is their universal acceptance. Whether you’re selling in a local shop or on a global e-commerce platform like Amazon, UPC numbers ensure your products are recognized everywhere. This global identification opens doors to international markets, making it easier for your products to reach a worldwide audience.

Sales Tracking

With UPC numbers, tracking sales becomes a breeze. Each scan at the point of sale updates your inventory and sales data instantly. This real-time tracking helps you understand which products are flying off the shelves and which ones need a little push. Accurate sales data can guide your marketing strategies and inventory planning.

Inventory Management

Managing inventory can be a headache, but UPC numbers simplify the process. They allow you to keep an accurate count of your stock levels. When a product is sold, the inventory system gets updated automatically. This helps in reducing overstock and stockouts, ensuring that you always have the right amount of product on hand.

Recall Efficiency

Recalls are a business nightmare, but UPC numbers make them manageable. If a product is found to be defective or unsafe, retailers can quickly identify and recall the affected batches. The UPC number helps trace the product back to its source, ensuring that only the problematic items are removed from shelves. This precision minimizes the impact on both customers and businesses.

In the next section, we’ll dive into how to obtain a UPC number, including the role of GS1 US and the steps involved.

How to Obtain a UPC Number

Getting a UPC number is crucial for selling your products, especially if you plan to list them on major platforms like Amazon. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to obtain a UPC number.

GS1 US: The Authority

The first step in obtaining a UPC number is to go through GS1 US, the organization that manages the assignment of UPCs in the United States. GS1 ensures that each UPC is unique and globally recognized.

Licensing and the Company Prefix

To start, you’ll need to license a company prefix from GS1. This prefix is a unique identifier assigned to your business. Think of it as a fingerprint for your company. It’s the first part of every UPC number you create and helps to identify your company as the manufacturer.

Determine Your Product Numbers

After obtaining your company prefix, the next step is to assign product numbers. Each unique product (and its variations, like size and color) requires a distinct product number. These numbers follow your company prefix in the UPC.

Calculating the Check Digit

Every UPC includes a check digit. This is the last digit of the UPC and is calculated using a specific algorithm to validate the code. GS1 provides tools to help you calculate this digit, ensuring that your UPC is error-free.

Step-by-Step Process

  1. Visit the GS1 Website: Start by visiting the GS1 US website and click on “Get a Barcode.”
  2. Determine Your Needs: Estimate how many UPC barcodes you need based on your number of unique products.
  3. Choose the Right Option: GS1 offers various packages, including single GTINs and bulk packages.
  4. Provide Information and Pay: Fill in your contact details and make the payment.
  5. Receive Your UPCs: Once processed, you’ll receive your unique UPC codes.

Quick Tip

If you’re just starting out, you might opt for a single GTIN, which is now available for $30 with no annual fee. This is perfect for businesses launching one product at a time.

In the next section, we’ll cover the specific requirements for using UPC numbers on Amazon. Keep reading to ensure your products are ready for the marketplace!

UPC Number Requirements for Selling on Amazon

Selling on Amazon requires a few extra steps when it comes to UPC numbers. Let’s break down what you need to know to get your products listed smoothly.

Amazon Requirements

Amazon mandates that every new product listing has a unique product identifier, typically a UPC number. This helps Amazon maintain an organized and reliable catalog. Make sure your UPCs are purchased from GS1, as Amazon verifies UPC authenticity against the GS1 database. Using non-GS1 UPCs can lead to listing removals or account suspensions.

GTIN Exemption

Not every product needs a UPC. If you sell private-label or handmade items, you might qualify for a GTIN exemption. This allows you to list products without a UPC. To apply for a GTIN exemption, you must:

  1. Go to the Amazon Seller Central and navigate to the “Apply for a GTIN exemption” page.
  2. Select the relevant category and brand.
  3. Provide supporting documents, like images of the product and packaging.

Once approved, you can list your products without a UPC.


When you use Amazon’s Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) service, your products need an FNSKU (Fulfillment Network Stock Keeping Unit). The FNSKU is unique to Amazon and links your products to your seller account. Here’s how to generate an FNSKU:

  1. Create a new product listing using your UPC number.
  2. Once listed, Amazon will assign an FNSKU to your product.
  3. Print the FNSKU label and affix it to your product or packaging.

This ensures Amazon can track and manage your inventory accurately.

Listing Products

When listing a product on Amazon, follow these steps:

  1. Enter Product ID: Select “UPC” from the dropdown and enter your UPC number.
  2. Add Product Details: Fill in the necessary information like title, description, and images.
  3. Set Pricing and Inventory: Specify your price and available stock.
  4. Choose Fulfillment Method: Decide whether you’ll fulfill orders yourself or use FBA.

Quick Recap

  • UPC Number: Ensure it’s GS1-certified.
  • GTIN Exemption: Apply if selling private-label or handmade items.
  • FNSKU: Mandatory for FBA; generated after listing your product.
  • Listing Process: Enter UPC, add details, set pricing, and choose fulfillment.

Following these steps will help you navigate Amazon’s requirements smoothly and get your products ready for sale. In the next section, we’ll discuss the differences between UPC and SKU, so stay tuned!

UPC vs SKU: Understanding the Differences

When it comes to managing products, you’ll often hear about UPC numbers and SKUs. While they might seem similar, they serve different purposes. Let’s break it down.

Internal Tracking vs. Global Identification

UPC Numbers are used globally to identify products. They are standardized and recognized worldwide. This means that a UPC for a product in the U.S. will be the same in Europe or Asia. This global identification makes it easy for products to be sold and tracked anywhere.

SKUs (Stock Keeping Units), on the other hand, are used internally by retailers. Each retailer creates their own SKU to manage inventory within their own system. For example, a store might assign a unique SKU to a product to track how many units are sold, returned, or need restocking.

Retailer-Specific Codes

UPC Numbers are assigned by GS1 US and are unique for each product. This ensures that no two products have the same UPC, which is crucial for global commerce. Retailers scan the UPC to quickly identify and price products at the point of sale.

SKUs are specific to each retailer. This means that the same product can have different SKUs at different stores. For example, a popular brand of coffee might have one SKU at Walmart and a different SKU at Target. This helps retailers manage their own inventory and sales data more effectively.

Inventory Management

UPC Numbers help with inventory management across the entire supply chain. They allow manufacturers and retailers to track products from production to the point of sale. This is essential for accurate sales forecasting and efficient restocking.

SKUs provide detailed inventory management within a specific store or chain. By using SKUs, retailers can track the performance of individual items, including variations like color or size. This detailed tracking helps retailers optimize their stock levels and reduce the risk of overstocking or stockouts.

Example: Shoes

Imagine a pair of shoes sold in different colors and sizes. Each variation will have its own UPC Number for global identification. However, a retailer might use a single SKU to track all variations of that shoe. This way, they can manage their inventory more efficiently while still using the UPC for sales and supply chain purposes.

Quick Recap

  • UPC Numbers: Global identification, standardized by GS1, used for international sales and inventory tracking.
  • SKUs: Retailer-specific, used for internal tracking, helps manage inventory and sales data within a store.

Understanding the differences between UPC numbers and SKUs is crucial for effective product management. In the next section, we’ll dive into the differences between UPC-A and UPC-E, so stay tuned!

UPC-A vs UPC-E: Which One to Use?

Choosing between UPC-A and UPC-E barcodes can be a bit confusing, but it boils down to understanding their key differences and use cases. Let’s break it down.

Size Differences

UPC-A is the standard format and consists of a 12-digit code. It’s what you typically see on most products in stores. The barcode is larger, making it easier to scan, especially in high-volume retail environments.

UPC-E, on the other hand, is a compressed version of UPC-A. It uses only 6 digits, making it much smaller. This is ideal for products with limited packaging space, like small cosmetics or individual candy bars.


The magic of UPC-E lies in its ability to compress a 12-digit UPC-A code into a 6-digit format. It does this by “suppressing” certain digits:
– It removes the number system digit.
– It compresses trailing zeros in the manufacturer’s code.
– It suppresses leading zeros in the product number.

For example, UPC-A code 042100005264 can be compressed into UPC-E code 425261. This compression is handy, but not all UPC-A codes can be converted to UPC-E. Only those starting with a zero can be zero-suppressed.

Check Digit

Both UPC-A and UPC-E include a check digit for error detection, but they handle it differently. In UPC-A, the check digit is the 12th digit, calculated from the first 11 digits. In UPC-E, the check digit is recalculated based on the compressed 6 digits.

Manufacturing Codes

Not all manufacturing codes can be compressed into UPC-E. Only those starting with a zero can be zero-suppressed. If your manufacturing code starts with any other number, you must use UPC-A.

When to Use Each

  • UPC-A: Use it for most products, especially those with enough space for a larger barcode. It’s universally accepted and easier to scan.
  • UPC-E: Ideal for small items where space is limited. However, ensure your manufacturing code starts with a zero to utilize this format.

Quick Comparison Table

Check DigitCalculated from 11 digitsRecalculated from 6 digits
Manufacturing CodeAnyMust start with zero

Understanding these differences can help you choose the right barcode for your product, ensuring smooth operations and compliance with retailer requirements.

Next, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions about UPC Numbers and their use in different scenarios.

Frequently Asked Questions about UPC Numbers

What is the difference between a GTIN and a UPC?

A GTIN (Global Trade Item Number) and a UPC (Universal Product Code) often get confused, but they are not the same.

  • GTIN is the identifying number encoded in the barcode. Think of it as the umbrella term that includes various types of barcodes like UPC, EAN, and ISBN.

  • UPC is one type of barcode under the GTIN umbrella. It’s the specific 12-digit code you see on products in the United States.

GTINs are essential because they ensure each product has a unique identifier, which helps in global trade and inventory management.

Do I need a UPC to sell my product?

In most cases, yes, you need a UPC to sell your product, especially if you’re aiming to get your product into retail stores or on major e-commerce platforms like Amazon or Walmart.

Here’s why:

  • Sales Forecasting: UPCs help you track how much of a product is sold, which helps in predicting future sales.

  • Inventory Tracking: They allow you to monitor your stock levels accurately, avoiding overstocking or stockouts.

  • Retailer Requirements: Big retailers often require products to have UPCs for streamlined inventory and sales processes. Without a UPC, your product might not be accepted.

Can I create my own UPC number?

No, you cannot create your own UPC number. They must be purchased from GS1 US, the organization that ensures each UPC is unique and valid.

Here’s how it works:

  1. GS1 Assignment: GS1 US assigns a unique company prefix to your business.

  2. Company Prefix: This prefix is the first part of your UPC and identifies your company.

  3. Product Numbers: The next digits identify the specific product.

  4. Check Digit: The last digit is a check digit, calculated to ensure the barcode is correctly composed.

To get started, visit the GS1 US website to apply for your UPCs.

Next, we’ll dive into the specific requirements for using UPC numbers on Amazon.


At StartupBros, we understand the importance of using UPC numbers for your e-commerce business. They are essential for tracking sales, managing inventory, and ensuring global identification of your products. Whether you’re just starting or looking to scale your operations, UPC numbers are a crucial part of your strategy.

E-commerce Training: We offer comprehensive training programs to help you navigate the complexities of selling online. From understanding UPC numbers to mastering Amazon’s marketplace, our resources are designed to make your journey smoother.

Expert Guidance: Our team of experts is here to provide you with the support you need. We cover everything from obtaining a UPC number to ensuring your barcodes meet all necessary requirements. We’re committed to helping you succeed.

Business Growth: Proper use of UPC numbers can significantly enhance your business operations. They streamline the checkout process, improve inventory management, and facilitate easier product recalls. This efficiency translates into better customer experiences and, ultimately, business growth.

Ready to take your business to the next level? Visit our Amazon Seller Tools page to explore our resources and start building your e-commerce empire today!

With the right tools and guidance, you can unlock the full potential of your business. Let’s get started!

UPC Number Guide 2024: Master the Essential Basics (2024)
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