In my previous blog post, I talked about ways to use QR code labels. A more commonly used label is the UPC code label, and here are some common questions I have heard over the years.

What is a UPC barcode?

‘UPC’ stands for Universal Product Code, a unique 12-digit number assigned to retail merchandise that identifies both the product and the vendor that sells the product. Barcodes used in retail are regulated by GS1, an international non-profit organization responsible for maintaining UPC bar code standards. UPCs are the most commonly used barcodes in the U.S.

How Do They Work

When a UPC is scanned, it tells the retailer important information about the product. The first 6 digits tell the products assigned manufacturers number, and the next 5 digits are chosen by the manufacturer to identify the item. The scanner identifies the sequence of numbers and recalls the product’s information on a computer or smartphone using barcode software.

A UPC code label must have 1/8” of white space (known as “quiet” space) on either side of the bar code in order to scan properly. For small items, smaller limited number UPC codes (UPC-E) can be used. UPC barcodes not only make it easy to identify products, they allow retailers to program their POS systems with prices and other information for each product.

  • UPCs Do Not Carry Prices– The UPC code simply identifies the product. When the UPC is scanned at the store, the retailer’s computer POS system pulls up the most current price for that item. The retailer can input any information they want with the UPC, such as product color, shape, store warranty etc.
  • One for Each Product– A UPC is designated for each individual product, manufacturer and product type/quantity. For instance, a two ounce cup of chocolate ice cream, a 32 ounce tub of chocolate ice cream and a 60 ounce tub of vanilla ice cream all have different UPC codes, even if they are all made by the same company.
  • Not Mandatory for Sales– A UPC barcode is primarily used by store retailers and isn’t mandatory to sell a product. If you sell your products via the Internet, you may not need one. If you sell to a separate Internet retailer, that retailer may require a barcode. We recommend that you ask them of their needs well in advance, as some retailers require their own item numbers on labels as well.
  • Internal Usage–For internal barcode labels such as asset tracking codes, you can use a different type of barcode symbology. UPCs have a fixed length code that must be exactly 12-digits long and contain only numbers, and must have a registered company prefix. There are other types of barcode symbols (like Code 39 or Code 128) that can handle both letters and numbers, and can be as long or short as you need, using numbers of your choice.

How to Get a UPC Barcode

To get any official UPC Code, you must obtain a unique GS1 Company Prefix by joining GS1. By paying an initial fee and an annual maintenance fee, you will be able to use up to 100 UPC codes. GS1 has prepared a 10-step list to implementation. Please visit for more information.

For small manufacturers who don’t have the need for 100 different UPC’s, there are resellers who sell one or more unique UPC codes that you can use for your products, for situations where your own manufacturers code is not necessary.