ArticlesA Complete Guide to Understanding the Universal Product Code (UPC)

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A Complete Guide to Understanding the Universal Product Code (UPC)

Dive deep into the Universal Product Code (UPC) with our comprehensive guide. Unravel the mysteries behind this essential barcode system, grasp its significance, and master its implementation. Explore examples and gain invaluable insights to leverage UPC effectively.

By India Index

5 min read

The seemingly simple UPC barcode has a lot of information stored in its digits. In this investigation, we break down and clarify the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) that is included within the UPC. 

Every component, from the manufacturer's distinctive ID to the subtle differences between product variations and the fail-safe check digit, is essential to expediting transactions and guaranteeing correctness. 

Come along as we explore the anatomy of retail barcodes and reveal the mysteries of this standardized technology that protects transaction integrity and increases supply chain efficiency. Learn about the interesting interactions between codes and numbers that create the core of the retail industry.

The Origin of the UPC

The supermarket sector's difficulties in automating checkout were the impetus for creating the Universal Product Code in the early 1970s. The UPC was created in response to the demand for a quick and easy way to identify items and speed up the transaction process. On June 26, 1974, a pack of Wrigley's chewing gum was scanned at an Ohio Marsh Supermarket, becoming the first product to have a UPC.

Components of UPC

The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is a unique identifier that may be accessed via the Universal Product Code (UPC). Although GTINs in North America are typically 12 digits long, regional variances may bring shorter or longer variants for certain use cases.

A UPC barcode's GTIN may be broken down into three main parts, each of which adds to the accuracy and usefulness of the code:

Manufacturer's Identification Number

The manufacturer identification number consists of the six initial digits of the UPC. This part acts like a unique thumbprint, making identifying a product’s creator easy. Notably, this common identity is shared by all items made by the same manufacturer.

Item Number

The item number is the next five numbers after the manufacturer identification number. This feature makes a product distinct and sets different versions of the same product apart. To provide more details in the identification process, a smartphone with 16 GB will have a different item number than one with 32 GB.

Check Digit

The check digit, a critical component produced by complex computations incorporating the other digits in the code, comes at the end of the 12-digit UPC. When it comes to Point of Sale (POS) transactions, this number is crucial for authenticating the UPC. The presence of imperfections will prevent the UPC from scanning correctly, protecting transaction accuracy and preventing mistakes in the retail chain.

UPC's Anatomy

A UPC may seem like a straightforward series of black-and-white bars, but behind this surface is a structured code containing important data. The machine-readable barcode and the 12-digit UPC number, which is readable by humans, make up the two primary components of the UPC.

Barcodes Readable by Machines

The barcode, a pattern of black and white bars that encodes data in a machine-readable format, is the most identifiable feature of a UPC. During the checkout process, barcode scanners can rapidly and correctly identify items because these bars' width and placement indicate certain numbers.

The Number on a Human-Readable UPC

A 12-digit numerical code is behind the barcode, with each number having a specific function. Usually, the manufacturer is indicated by the first few numbers, and the remaining digits identify the particular product. The last number is a check digit, computed to guarantee the code is accurate.

UPC's Advantages

The retail business underwent a revolution when UPCs were introduced, and their many advantages still influence how goods are handled, marketed, and monitored today.

Simplified Procedure for Checkout

UPCs can hasten the check-out procedure. With a simple barcode scan at checkout, products are quickly recognized, reducing customer waiting time at the counter and enhancing efficiency.

Effective Inventory Control

For retailers, UPCs are essential to inventory control. Each product has a unique code that allows for precise stock level monitoring, expediting replenishment, and averting stockouts. As a result, supply chain management is enhanced, and product availability is guaranteed to satisfy customer demand.

Enhanced Precision of Data

Errors may occur while manually inputting product data into a system, which can cause disparities in inventory and price. UPCs remove this danger by offering a standardized, error-free method of data input. This lowers human error while also improving information accuracy across the supply chain.

Assisted Product Traceability

UPCs allow for the quick and accurate identification of impacted items in the case of recalls or quality problems. This reduces the effect on customers and merchants since only the really essential things are taken off the shelves.

Different Retail Codes vs. UPC

Product identification codes are essential for optimizing processes in the complex world of retail. Let's examine the main distinctions between other often-used acronyms related to retail items and the Universal Product Code (UPC).

Stock Keeping Unit (SKU)

  • Definition: Unlike UPCs, which are produced by GS1 and are global, SKUs are internal product tracking codes established by retailers.
  • Uniqueness: Every merchant has a different SKU. For instance, a store may designate a single SKU to include all varieties of a t-shirt, independent of color or size, even if each variation may have a separate UPC.
  • Inter-retailer Variation: To highlight how SKUs are retailer-specific, two stores offering the same t-shirt can use the same UPC but distinct SKUs.

Global Trade Item Number (GTIN)

  • Composition: A whole barcode comprises the GTIN and UPC together. The barcode's numerical code is called the GTIN, and the scannable portion is called the UPC.
  • Function: The combination of GTIN and UPC offers almost instantaneous product information when used with a Point of Sale (POS) system.

European Article Number (EAN)

  • Geographic Usage: The European Article Number, or EAN, is a widely used product identification in Europe.
  • Digit Variation: EANs comprise 13 digits instead of the 12-digit UPC, which has traditionally led to compatibility problems with some US point-of-sale systems.
  • Global Standardization: Modern scanners can now read both EAN and UPC barcodes thanks to a set of internationally standardized product coding guidelines established in 2005. However, US businesses usually use UPC barcodes for uniformity.

Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN)

  • Definition: The "Amazon Standard Identification Number," or ASIN, is a special number exclusive to Amazon.
  • Relation to UPC: An ASIN is sometimes a completely new number, although it is often a variant of a product's UPC barcode.
  • Amazon Exclusivity: ASINs are a key component of Amazon's unique approach to product identification and are a means by which the company effectively manages the wide range of items on its marketplace.

UPC's Place in eCommerce

With the growth of eCommerce, UPCs continue to be essential in enabling online transactions as the retail environment changes. Online marketplaces use UPCs to standardize product information, facilitating cross-platform product comparison and customer search. This consistency improves the effectiveness of order fulfillment procedures and simplifies the online buying experience.

Innovations and Difficulties

Despite being a mainstay in retail for many years, UPCs are not without difficulties. One risk to the integrity of product identification systems is counterfeiting. Innovations like Quick Response (QR) codes and Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) are emerging as supplements or replacements for conventional UPCs, providing further security and information layers.

UPC's Future Prospects

The future of UPCs is one of adaptation and cohabitation with new identifying methods as technology advances. For example, the combination of blockchain technology with UPCs has the potential to improve supply chain traceability and transparency.


The Universal Product Code has revolutionized the retail industry by streamlining transactions, improving inventory control, and providing customers with a more seamless shopping experience. 

UPCs continue to be a reliable and flexible tool that helps us traverse the changing environment of commerce by facilitating the smooth movement of goods from producers to retailers and, eventually, into customers' hands. 

The history of the UPC is still being written, and new technological advancements can potentially influence how product identification develops.

Discover more about the intriguing worlds of barcodes, retail, and other related topics by perusing our extensive library of blogs at India Index. Keep up with the most recent developments, trends, and best practices influencing the ever-changing business environment. This is where your journey into the core of retail intelligence starts.

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