As a consumer, you most certainly are familiar with the UPC barcode: the black, white and numeric image gracing nearly every product you purchase. As a business owner, you might also encounter similar images that differ from the standard UPC code, although they have some of the same components. Knowing the differences will give you insight on the retail industry and perhaps help you expand your market.

UPC Codes Defined

A UPC barcode or universal product code is an essential component on product packaging for companies that sell their products in the retail marketplace. Although not required for companies with limited distribution or at every online retail site, a UPC code properly identifies both your company and products and will allow you to expand your sales to new markets.

It's All in Black and White

There are two parts to the UPC code. Technically, the UPC barcode is the display of black and white vertical lines, each varying from one to four units wide, while the number string, printed directly underneath the bars, is the actual product code. The UPC barcode is a type of scan language that translates the numeric digits into an image.

The numeric text is known as the "human readable interpretation". If the barcode itself is damaged or obscured on the packaging, causing it to become unscannable, the numeric text serves as a backup. The clerk simply manually enters the numeric code into the point-of-sale system to enter the product sale.

UPC Barcode Design Structure

Every UPC barcode in North America is created to contain 12 numeric digits that are specific to a single product that is offered for sale. The first six numbers in the code reference the manufacturer, and the next five digits identify the unique item. Products can be identified down to the exact size, color or model offered for sale.

The last digit in the barcode is the UPC code check digit, which is calculated by a specific formula using the other 11 digits. Every time a product is scanned, the point-of-sale computer performs the calculation, and if the resulting number does not match the scanned check digit, it means the item will need to be rescanned. This ensures that consumers will receive the correct price for the items they purchase.

Identify Companies With the First Six Digits 

When companies acquire UPC codes for their product line, most contact GS1, the global standards organization. This centralized organization assigns the business its unique company prefix — the first six digits in the code.

The first digit or number system character is often specific to certain industries, representing a category of product type. For example, the digits 0, 6 and 7 are for general products, the digit 3 represents items sold in the pharmaceutical industry and the digit 2 is used for items of varying weight that are measured in a store, such as meat, nuts or vegetables.

Businesses Identify Items by Numbers 

The company must then make a separate code for each variation of product it sells, such as size, color and style. For example, if a company manufactures women's gardening gloves, it must create a unique code for each type, such as cloth, leather or rubber as well as each size, such as small, medium or large.

If the company sells three styles of gloves, each in three sizes, then nine different UPC codes must be created. Codes are managed in an internal UPC database. Codes are added as new products hit the market, and codes are retired when products are discontinued.

Generating the Bars for the Code

Once the numeric code is created for each product, a software program or UPC code generator translates the digits into the black-and-white bar pattern following predetermined rules for the width of each black bar and white space. When the actual scannable code is created, it can be printed directly onto the product or onto a label.

UPC-A and UPC-E Similarities

Because size is sometimes an issue on packaging, UPC codes have two versions. The UPC-A is the standard size featuring 12 digits, while the UPC-E is a smaller-sized barcode consisting of only eight digits. It is also called the 0-suppressed UPC because it compresses the central 10 digits of the numeric text into just six digits by taking out the zeros. The smaller UPC code is used on items such as soda cans, where a larger image would be difficult to print or scan.

How Do UPC Barcodes Work?

Barcodes serve a variety of functions for retailers. When cashiers scan a barcode, usually located on the bottom or back of the product packaging, they not only enter a barcode number to get information on the item's price, but they simultaneously perform several other tasks.

Since the items are linked to the store's point-of-sale system, many managerial functions become automated. The computer system can alter the product's price when sales occur, maintain inventory counts, easily reorder items when stock levels get low and enter sold items into the accounting software.

Codes Provide Detailed Information

The information contained in UPC barcodes also gives consumers knowledge in the palm of their hand. With a barcode scanning app, customers can scan a product's UPC on a smartphone to get instant access to detailed product information. Such services provide you with product photographs, specifications, customer reviews and online pricing so you can do cost comparisons among retailers.

UPC Codes After the Sale

UPC codes continue to provide information after a consumer sale. For example, a receipt from a clothing store may list each item purchased by name, price and the numeric text portion of the UPC code. If the customer returns an item, the salesperson can verify that the returned item is actually the item listed on the receipt by comparing the UPC code. The current price of the item can also be checked since a seasonal reduction or sale may be in place, thereby reducing the amount of the applicable refund.

Other Codes You Might Encounter

  • EAN Codes: The European Article Number is an expanded UPC code containing 13 digits. It is used globally throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Middle East and is compatible with UPC scanners. The first two or three digits of the EAN code represent the country of manufacturing origin.

  • ISBN Barcodes: Any book you pick up has something similar to a UPC, but it is an ISBN number. The International Standard Book Number is used globally by libraries, book stores and universities to identify books throughout the publishing world. ISBNs originally contained 10 digits but now consist of 13 digits.

  • Industry-Specific "Coded" Barcodes: Many industries use specialized barcodes that look similar to a UPC code but do not have the leading digit or check digit. Code 39 is commonly used in government or the electronics and health care industries. Code 128 is used in shipping applications and interleaved 2 of 5 is used in warehouses, shipping and manufacturing situations to distinguish shipment details.

Codes for Marketing

You might come across a quick-response barcode on a product if the company is looking to provide more product information or do additional marketing. These codes are two dimensional and matrix-like, with a mix of large and small black-and-white squares. When consumers scan the code with a smartphone, they are linked to the company's website, where they can gather product details or learn about promotions.