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Stands for "Universal Product Code." A UPC is a 12-digit identifier that includes a number and a barcode. It uniquely identifies products sold through retailers. UPCs are used in the United States, though other countries around the world use similar codes. For example, products from European counties use a 13-digit barcode called an EAN or "European Article Number" that is compatible with most UPC scanners.

A UPC contains a sequence of black vertical bars that represent the twelve digits printed below the barcode. These bars can be scanned by a laser device or camera that quickly reads and interprets the sequence into the corresponding 12-digit number. When you check out at a retail store, the UPC is used to identify and record each item you purchase.

The first digit in a UPC code represents the country of origin (0 for the United States) and the next five digits identify the manufacturer. Digits 7 through 11 identify the specific product. The twelfth digit serves as checksum, which checks the validity of the preceding 11 numbers.

UPCs vs Other Product Identifiers


UPCs and SKUs both identify specific products, but UPCs — as the name implies — are more universal. Manufacturers must apply for a range of UPCs, which identify their products globally for distribution by any retailer. SKUs can be generated by any retailer as an alternative to UPCs. They provide retailers with a custom means of identifying products they sell.

Product IDs

UPCs and product IDs (PIDs) both uniquely identify products, but product IDs are generated by each manufacturer. PIDs allow manufacturers to keep records of their products using their own IDs rather than universal product codes. Many products have both the UPC and product ID printed on the label.

Serial Numbers

While UPCs identify products, serial numbers (SNs) identify each individual item manufactured. For example, a specific type of wireless bluetooth headphones may have a single UPC, but each item sold will have a unique serial number. The serial number allows manufacturers to keep records of each item they sell.

Updated: August 6, 2018

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