What is a UPC?

UPC — The Basics

UPC, which stands for Universal Product Code, is a system for identifying consumer products by a unique, 12-digit number and an associated barcode. Most retail items in the United States and Canada include a UPC on their packaging.

The UPC system was created to provide retailers a very easy way to match up physical products with their corresponding electronic records in a Point of Sale (aka, POS) system. By scanning the barcode present on each item sold, the retailer checkout process becomes much more efficient, and it can help the retailer with stocktaking as well.

A manufacturer will generally assign a completely unique UPC to every new product they bring to market. This can include product "variants" too. So for example, a particular model of shoe may have ten or even more UPCs assigned to it, one for each size and color the shoe comes in.

History of the UPC Barcode Standard

Basic barcode technology has roots going back to at least the early 1900s, but the UPC system was first developed in the 1970s by the Uniform Product Code Council (today known as GS1). Several large technology firms were involved in the system's development, not least being IBM, whose proposal was eventually chosen as the one for implementation.

Although initially intended for use in grocery stores to speed up the checkout process, by the 1980s UPC's adoption had broadened to retailers of all kinds. And as anyone that has shopped in the last 20 years can likely attest, the UPC is now ubiquitous and few retail products come without one (in North America at least).

Tradition states that the first UPC to be scanned was for a pack of gum — Wrigley's Juicy Fruit — in 1974, at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

What's an EAN?

With the tremendous success of the UPC system in North America, businesses in other parts of the world soon wanted their own barcode technology for quick retail transactions and inventory management. EAN was the result, and it was developed in Europe only a few short years after the advent of UPC.

EAN originally stood for European Article Number but is now known as the International Article Number (though the original acronym remains). While a UPC refers to a unique, 12-digit number and associated barcode, an EAN barcode sports 13 digits; otherwise it's pretty much the same.

And the UPC system is interoperable with EAN. Tack on a 0 (zero) to any UPC and you effectively have an EAN. And any EAN that starts with zero is just a UPC in the 13-digit format.

EAN-8 — Little Barcodes

Although the term “EAN” usually refers to the 13-digit barcode standard — outlined above — there is another barcode format under the EAN umbrella known as EAN-8.

EAN-8 barcodes have only 8 digits for a more compact format. EAN-8 codes are intended for smaller merchandise — think tiny candies or cans of soda — where a normal UPC or EAN may not fit on the package.

You may sometimes see the 13-digit EAN standard referred to as EAN-13 to distinguish it from EAN-8.

And what about a GTIN?

As if we needed another acronym, right? 😄

GTIN stands for Global Trade Item Number and is an effort to unify the once-separate and incompatible product coding standards. Since bringing them under one roof, GTIN has become almost synonymous with UPC and EAN, but also includes GTIN-14 and GTIN-8 (EAN-8).

Both EANs and UPCs are types of Global Trade Item Numbers. EAN is often referred to as GTIN-13, while UPC is also known as GTIN-12.

GTIN was developed and is overseen by GS1. Its origin as a single, coherent standard is probably best pinpointed to 2005 when the UPC (UCC) and EAN organizations were merged; prior to that the two were effectively independent product coding and barcode standards.

Thus, in summary, GTIN is an identifier (number) for a trade item — a product or service. That trade item can be a physical or digital good, sold online or in a physical retail store. And every GTIN assigned is intended to be globally unique; two distinct products should never carry the same barcode (though two units of the same product generally will have the same barcode).

How can I acquire a UPC or EAN for my products?

Do you manufacture products of your own? If so it's generally a good idea to include a UPC or EAN barcode on your product packaging. In fact, if you intend to work with retailers and see your goods in wide circulation, a UPC (or EAN) is a virtual requirement nowadays.

In order to ensure no two products have the same-exact barcode number — leading to potential confusion and logistics problems at the retail level — the allotment of barcodes under the GTIN (UPC and EAN) standard is managed by the GS1 organization. GS1, through its more-than-100 local, country-specific member organizations provides businesses and manufacturers of all sizes with unique barcode numbers to assign to their products.

Many resellers allow you to buy UPC codes in smaller quantities, or you can leverage GS1's tool to find the provider for your country.

Barcodes are available to purchase in quantities as small as one, but large companies may even decide to purchase a GS1 company prefix, which provides them with an entire block (thousands) of barcode numbers.

The GS1 US website offers a barcode estimator tool to help determine how many barcodes you or your company may need.

Go-UPC — The Ultimate Barcode-Lookup Service

Here at Go-UPC we don't deal in selling or assigning barcode numbers, but we do keep track of them. Go-UPC provides a window into the world's product data; you'll find info on virtually every product on earth here — as long as it has a barcode.

If your business needs quality product data — name, brand, image, description, and more — Go-UPC offers the ideal solution. If you're building an application that will perform regular lookups consider our API, and our Bulk Lookup Service is an easy solution if you just need to clean up your inventory or track down a bunch of product info in a hurry.