Guide to UPC codes

Learn about what is a UPC,  how they relate to the barcode and business from GS1 US. learn about UPCS and their use cases.

UPC codes have been used since the early 1970s in all forms of commerce within brick-and-mortar stores, they are used in everything from grocery to everyday retail. With the rise in online ecommerce from giants like Walmart and Amazon, having a UPC barcode is necessity in bringing your innovative and new product to the consumer, whether online or in store. 

A UPC code enables small and large businesses of all sizes to bring their product into the market; everyday goods from food, coffee, home goods, and apparel rely on barcodes. GS1 US plays a part in helping businesses scale their growth and realize their goals. GS1 US plays the role in providing authentic UPC barcodes, which allow businesses to sell their products globally. With the help of GS1 US, your small idea can blossom and scale into a well-known and beloved business.  

What is a UPC Code 

A UPC code, which stands for Universal Product Code, is a series of black lines that help identify a product. This symbol is encoded with a series of numbers known as the GTIN, which makes up a complete barcode. The UPC is scanned at the point of sale, along with these lines and digits. They make up the barcode and often allow systems to properly identify items and look up their price.  

A UPC code allows retailers and manufacturers to accurately track products in their inventory, this allows for greater recall accuracy and inventory management. A proper UPC code along with batch lot numbers allows a company to recall damaged items accurately and easily from a retailer, distributor, or warehouse before they reach the public. Damaged items may include contaminated food, tainted medical devices, medicines and faulty items that could injury others.

Do I need a UPC 

Without a valid UPC code, tracking and selling your inventory through the supply chain is not possible. UPC codes allow proper sales forecasting for your product as you can accurately calculate current inventory, products sold and its demand. For most retailers, having a UPC code on your product is a requirement to sell your product. 

As a manufacturer and seller, UPCs help you keep track of sales for your products and allow you to sell your products anywhere.  Some types of barcodes like the SSCC (Serial Shipping Container Code) can help you track shipments.   A GS1 US UPC barcode allows you to sell your product anywhere. As a retailer they are integral for inventory management and for processing returns. GS1 US provides trusted UPC barcodes that are used throughout the supply chain and are essential to sell your product online and to in-store retailers. 


What is the difference between a SKU and a UPC code? It is a frequently asked question; a SKU is known as a Stock Keeping Unit, is an internal tracking metric for retailers. A SKU number helps retailers keep track of their sales data and unique items associated with the manufacturer’s UPC code. 

A UPC code is accepted globally for that product, a SKU number is unique and created by a specific retailor as it helps them to accurately monitor inventory in that store. Some items, while the same product, but in different colors and sizes will all have different barcodes, a retailer can assign a SKU for that product type to keep track of all the barcodes associated with that item. 

A pair of shoes that a retailer sells can have a different UPC for every color and size variation, to properly track all the various UPC, the retailer creates one unique SKU number. Two retailers can sell the same item with the same UPC codes, but they will both use their own SKU number.


Another frequently asked question is the difference between a GTIN and a UPC. A GTIN and a UPC go together when licensing a barcode from GS1 US. A GTIN (Global Trade Item Number) is the identifying number encoded on the bottom of the barcode and the UPC code is the scannable element of the barcode. 

Together a GTIN and a UPC are the two elements that make up the barcode. A barcode, a GTIN, and UPC are commonly used to describe essentially the same item; It is the standard and complete barcode you see in stores. 

How to get a UPC Code 

  1. To get a barcode, you must first determine how many barcodes you will need, how many products do you plan to sell?
  2. Determine the type of barcode you need – different types of barcodes are designed for specific item types. Use our helpful guide to discover which barcode is right for your business.
  3. Pick the package that works for you! – GS1 US makes it convenient for your business, we offer single GTINs/UPC Barcode and Bulk packages for your multiple items.