How to Identify UPC Codes

Universal Product Codes (UPC) are unique sets of numbers used to identify products. They are displayed in "barcode symbology" that is machine-readable. Consumers use them for such things as a proof of purchase when submitting a mail-in rebate and to check shelf pricing to the exact product in hand. Stores use them for inventory and pricing purposes. Today, UPC symbols are everywhere and used in almost every retail store in the United States and Canada. In this article you will learn to not only identify what a UPC looks like, but also what its numerology means.

Look over your package. The UPC symbol is located on the product. Sometimes a removable sticker with the UPC code may be placed on smaller objects, like pencils. Many times, the UPC is on the bottom of the box.

Notice the barcode. A barcode is a set of parallel lines so that optical machines can read the UPC number. The lines are of different widths and sequences to represent the unique digits of the product.

Count the number of digits. UPC numbers are usually made up of 12 digits, which can be located directly under the barcode. They are either grouped into two sets of six numbers with slight spacing in between, or into two sets of five with slight spacing in between and two end numbers on the outside parameters of the barcode. Sometimes however, on smaller packages, a compressed UPC barcode is used representing only nine digits and the numbers are not written underneath the barcode lines.

Know the meaning of the first number. UPC numbers that start with 0, 1, 6, 7, 8, or 9 are used for most consumer products. UPC barcodes that begin with a 2 are used for items sold by weight, like fruit, and for items only used in warehouses and stores that are not sold to the public. UPCs starting with the number 3 are for pharmaceuticals where the UPC number is also the National Drug Number. If the UPC starts with the number 4, it is used for warehouse and store only purposes, manufacturer coupons, and store loyality cards. UPC numbers starting with a 5 are used for manufacturer coupons.

Look at the last digit. The last numeral of any barcode is called a "check digit" which is used to detect errors when the UPC is scanned or manually entered. There is a mathmatical formula that is used with the first eleven digits which, when applied, should equal the last number. If not, there was an error in the scanned reading or typing of the UPC number.

Understand the significance of the middle digits. Sometimes the middle numbers have specific meanings. For UPC numbers on items sold by wieght, the first five middle digits are used to identify the item. The next five digits are used to identify weight or price, with the first digit of that set signifying whether it's for weight or price. For manufacturer coupons, the first five middle numbers are the specific manufacturer's code and the next five numbers are determined by the manufacturer's to indicate the product and discount.


About the Author

Melissa Lewis is a former elementary classroom teacher and media specialist. She has also written for various online publications. Lewis holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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