What's a UPC? How do I get UPCs? How many do I need?

What's a UPC? How do I get UPCs? How many do I need?

A UPC is short for the "Universal Product Code". You see them everywhere—on a can of Coke at the grocery store, on the bottom of a flower pot at the local garden center. It's a 12-digit number that can be represented by a barcode. When you go to the cash register, the cashier scans the barcode, the system reads the 12-digit numbers, and looks them up in a database to figure out what product you're trying to buy and how much you should pay for it.

A sample UPC.

Shipvine has a requirement that all items that you send to us be labeled with a barcode, and the UPC is the preferred format because you know it'll work for pretty much any retailer you might ship your products to. We can't memorize tens of thousands of products, so we scan barcodes all day long to make sure that we're shipping the right stuff to the right people. And if the wrong barcode is on the wrong product, then it'll probably get shipped wrong, too
—same as if you snuck a UPC for a pack of chewing gum on a can of Coke, and the cashier wasn't paying attention to the screen.

One important thing to remember about UPCs is that they're just numbers. The cost of the product isn't encoded in the UPC. The name of the product isn't encoded in the UPC. It's just a number that you decided to assign to a particular physical item, like a digital post-it note. You should avoid reusing old UPCs for new products when possible, because some retailers might still have the original product associated with it, throwing their inventory off.

How do I get a UPC?

If UPCs are just a number, then how can you be sure that your UPC is unique? Well, the first few digits of a UPC are maintained in a registry by an organization called GS1. If you want to get a UPC, you can buy a GS1 Company Prefix of varying lengths
—the length of the Company Prefix determines how many UPCs you can generate.

For example, let's say your GS1 Company Prefix is "0829010". The leading zero means "US or Canada" and is implicit in these countries, so what you have here is really a six-digit UPC prefix, "829010". A UPC is 12 digits, and the last digit is a "check digit" that is calculated from the other digits in the UPC, so that leaves 5-digits left to play around with. These 5-digits are your serial number range that you can use to assign to your products, from "00000" all the way up to "99999" for a total of 100,000 UPCs.

That looks expensive. Do I have to get a GS1 Company Prefix?

If you're not selling to retailers that require UPCs, such as Macy's, Nordstrom, or Amazon, then you can get away with using your own barcodes or using "internal-use UPCs". If you head on over to the Internal Use Barcodes page in Shipvine Logistics, you can generate a bunch of UPCs starting with a "2", which is a number that is universally recognized as being for internal use. These numbers are guaranteed to be unique within Shipvine and can be used to satisfy Shipvine's barcoding requirement.

There are also companies online that might sell you a handful of individual UPCs instead of a company prefix. These may or may not be legitimate, and it's "buyer beware". If you're shipping to big retailers and need a UPC, you should probably purchase a GS1 Company Prefix. If you're shipping to consumers or to boutique shops, you can probably get away with Shipvine's internal use barcodes or your own barcode format.

If you buy a UPC from a reseller, then someone who looks up the GS1 company prefix on that UPC will see the reseller's name. If you use a Shipvine internal use barcode and someone looks it up, they'll just see a note that this prefix is reserved for internal use, and isn't assigned to anyone in particular.

OK, I have a GS1 Company Prefix. How do I generate the UPCs?

The hardest part about generating UPCs is calculating the check digit. You can use the calculator at GS1 to do this for you. Just enter the 11-digits of the UPC (your company prefix plus the serial number), and it'll tell you the check digit.

If you have a whole bunch of UPCs to generate, you can use an Excel spreadsheet to help you do it. The attached "upcgen.xslx" file is a template to get you started. Enter the 11-digit UPC (your company prefix + the serial number) in column A, and the full 12-digit UPC will appear in column D.

How is a UPC different from an EAN?

In the US and Canada, we're used to UPCs being 12 digits. In the rest of the world, the EAN is common, which is 13 digits. It's a superset of the UPC standard where they've added an extra digit in front; for backwards compatibility, a leading zero is the same as a UPC. So if you print out 200000000004 as a UPC and 0200000000004 as an EAN, you'll find that the barcodes are exactly the same, skinny bar-for-skinny bar and fat bar-for-fat bar; there's just an extra zero in front of the human-readable output.

I'm selling apparel. Does that mean each color and size needs its own UPC?

Yes. The UPC uniquely identifies a physical product. Let's say you have a two t-shirt designs, one with a rainbow on it and one with a horseshoe on it. And let's say each shirt comes in blue fabric and red fabric. And let's say you sell them in small, medium, large, and extra large. You'd need 2 designs
× 2 colors × 4 sizes = 16 UPCs. All of the Rainbow/Blue/Smalls would have one UPC, all of the Rainbow/Blue/Mediums would have another UPC, and so on.
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