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What is a UPC Code?

Learn 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 to bring their product to 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 provides 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 additional information such as 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 GS1-128 barcode can help you track shipments. A GS1 US UPC barcode allows you to sell your product anywhere. For retailers, 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 and 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, while a SKU number is internal and created by a specific brand or retailer. It helps them to accurately monitor inventory in that store. Some items, while the same product, may come in different colors and sizes. They will all have different barcodes, but a retailer can assign a SKU for that product type to keep track of all the barcodes associated with that item. 

For example, a pair of shoes that a retailer sells can have a different UPC for every color and size variation, and to properly track all the various UPCs, 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 and how many products 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 and UPC barcode bulk packages for your multiple items.