Ideas for Marketing Meetings – Getting a Universal Product Code (UPC)

If you’re into selling retail, here’s how you go about getting a UPC code. It’s tedious info, but maybe it will be helpful to know there’s a little how-to note stashed somewhere for future reference.

UPCs are the 12-digit numbers that appear under the barcodes on many U.S. products. GS1 US, a nonprofit group that sets standards for international commerce, handles the distribution of these codes. The arrangement of the numbers has meaning. Rather than recreate the wheel, I borrowed this image from the GS1 web site to show an anatomy of a bar code:

A  business must first join GS1 US. The GS1 will assign each member its own ID number that appears as the first part of its UPC – the first 5 digits shown above. (In fact, some web sites allow you to do a reverse look up using this first set of numbers to find the manufacturer.) The second set of numbers designates the product. The product ID in your company may or may not share this number in your own inventory system. The check digit assures the math is correct (there’s a fairly complex math to arrive to this number – if you love math, check it out here:

Registering your company for a UPC and membership with the GS1 will set you back a minimum initial fee of $760 with an annual renewal fee of $158. GS1 now offers smaller sets of numbers for reduced prices, which is good news for small companies. Most small businesses will never have 20,000 products, all requiring separate UPC numbers, so purchasing them in groups of 100 or more is ideal for many companies. Be sure to estimate how many products you intend to have in the future.
Don’t reuse your UPCs if possible
Companies need different UPC codes for each product they sell, even if it is just a different size. This is VERY important!! Using the same UPC for two different products is confusing at best. (The only exception is if you offer a variety in one lot, and don’t guarantee a certain number of products per UPC – so red, green and blue widgets can be a mixed bag of random products under one UPC for the same price.

Beware of recycling dead UPC codes (if you retire a product, for example) unless you are absolutely positive NO closeouts or remaining products remain in warehouses anywhere. Most big box stores will fine heavily for duplicate numbers used on different products. They will mercilessly charge you per instance, and it adds up quickly! This is also a problem if you’re in the closeout business, and resell products with their former UPC number on the box. You will be liable for any duplicates, not the company you purchased the products from. Be prepared to put your own UPC on closeouts!

You can fill out a membership form can be filled out online on GS1′s Web site,

Some Internet-based companies, including, now resell UPC codes for less than $100, so small companies don’t have to pay to join GS1 themselves. However this gets very expensive per code. Plus, the first set of numbers which identifies the company, will not be identifying yours, since you are ‘renting’ their UPC. (The UPC will begin with that company’s ID number.) If you’re selling one or two products it’s probably fine. Major retailers require product makers to have their own identification numbers. If you’re not big enough to buy your own UPCs, you’re probably not big enough to work with major retailers.

Another little known solution is selling to grocery stores. Most grocery stores can apply their own UPCs to your products. This is great for test marketing. Grocery store buyers generally handle regional or local purchasing too, so you stand a better chance of them helping you test market your products without getting UPCs.

The magic of UPCs lies in the readable numbers, not the bars themselves. In other words – if you don’t join GS1 and get assigned a bar code number, you can’t magically create one by other means. Any bar code software program can create coded bars from information you type it – numbers, your name, random combinations. Making the bar code itself isn’t the issue – it’s getting the numbers you need.

Size is an issue also. Not too big, not too small. Ah, but that’s a blog for another day.


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