How do UPC Codes Work?

How do UPC codes work and why do I need a UPC code?

UPC codes are essential for all retail products worldwide. To understand how UPC codes work, it is first important to under the different between a UPC code and a barcode.

UPC Code Definition - A UPC code is a 12 digit legal number that looks like this: 123456789012. You cannot simply make up a 12 digit number to use for your products, which is why you must purchase UPC codes.

Barcode Definition - A barcode refers to any type of code that can be converted into a "bar" styled code. There are dozens of different types of barcodes. A barcode is not a UPC code, but a UPC code is a type of barcode since a UPC code can be converted into a barcode image. All of the codes that you see on products are UPC codes that have been converted into a UPC barcode image. UPC codes can also be referred to as "UPC Barcodes".

Now that you understand the difference between a UPC code and a barcode, it will be easier to understand how UPC codes work exactly.

UPC codes work by converting the 12 digit UPC code or UPC number into the barcode image that you see on products. The reason why a UPC code needs to be converted into a barcode image is so that a barcode scanner can easily scan a product at checkout. Each vertical line of a barcode image is a number in "machine format" as the laser of a barcode scanner interprets these vertical lines of a barcode image into numbers. So at this point you may be asking, why did we start with a number, convert it to an image, then the barcode scanner converts it back to a number? While this does not seem immediately logical, it could not be more of a perfect system. We will now go on to explain exactly how a barcode works by using an example...

Let's imagine that you go to the store and all you need to purchase is a gallon of milk. When the manufacturer of that gallon of milk approached that retail store where you are purchasing the milk, they filled out an application with their product details. They were required to provide the name, manufacturer, UPC code, price and a few other details. Upon that product getting accepted into that store, those details were manually entered into the store's database. Now, when you bring the gallon of milk to the register, the cashier scans the barcode image on that gallon of milk. As the scanner reads the barcode image, it converts the vertical lines of the barcode into the 12 digit barcode. Those 12 digits are sent digitally through to the store's main database which is connected to all the cashier's registers. The store's database then sends back the data for that product to the cashiers register such as price, name of the product etc..

Essentially a barcode image is a fancy way of encoding a number into machine readable format. If a store cashier had to type in the 12 digit UPC number manually for each and every item, we would be spending hours waiting in lines at the store. Instead the invention of the UPC barcode has dramatically reduced the amount of time that it takes to checkout when going to the store. You may have also seen that if a store clerk cannot get a barcode image to scan, they start manually typing the UPC code number into the computer. The barcode scanner does not read the digits from a barcode image, it only reads the vertical lines. The numbers on a barcode image are used as a backup for a cashier to enter manually in case the barcode image does not scan properly.

Another thing you may have seen are the sales that stores have. For example, on that 1 gallon of milk it may cost $3.99 at a Target store, but then if you go to Walmart, the 1 gallon of milk may cost only $3.49 for the same brand and size milk. Since it's the same product it will have the same UPC code whether it's for sale at Target, Walmart or any other store. The only difference is that the sale was based on a store manager entering the sale discount into the store's database at Walmart prior to issuing the weekly sales flyers. This is how different stores can have different sales for the same product with the same UPC code, it's all about the data stored in each store database.

Creating barcode images are free, you can enter any 12 digit number and create barcode graphics for that 12 digit number. However, if you simply create a 12 digit number, generate the barcode image and apply it to your product, it would not be a valid and legal number. This is why you need to purchase UPC codes FIRST so that you own the legal rights to use those UPC codes on your products.

Once you own the legal rights to your UPC codes, you can convert those UPC codes into barcode images and then apply those to your product packaging via labels or printed directly on the product packaging itself. Once the barcode images have been applied to your products you can then approach retail stores or vendors who may be interested in carrying your line of products. When they ask you for your UPC code on the application, you are now covered, simply write down the 12 digit UPC code for that product and fill out the rest of the form.

For using UPC codes at online retailers such as Amazon, you are not required to have the UPC code affixed to your products. If you are fulfilling(you shipping the product to the customer directly) the product yourself, you are not required to affix the UPC code to the product. However, if you plan on using FBA - Fulfillment by Amazon, you will be required to have your UPC code on affixed to your products. When creating an Amazon listing you will be required to enter the UPC code for your product, simply enter the 12 digit UPC code number that you decided to assign to that product and you are all set!

If you plan on putting your products in retail stores, you will also need master carton codes, also known as SCC-14 codes. Retail stores will require you to provide both your UPC code and corresponding master carton code when submitting your application. We are one of the very few companies who also sells master carton codes. To find out more information about master carton codes, please go here: SCC-14 Master Carton Codes

If you need to purchase master carton codes, please make sure to purchase your UPC codes first then read the information on the master carton codes page above. The master carton code is derived from the UPC code which is why you'll need to have your UPC codes first. If you are selling your products on Amazon or online marketplaces only, you are not required to purchase a master carton code.

For other helpful articles, how-to guide and other UPC/Barcode information, please visit our Knowledgebase.