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The 5 Most Frequently Asked Questions About UPC Barcodes
by Michelle Covey
May 6, 2022
Man florist reading price barcode reader flower

Barcodes are everywhere and can be found on almost every product globally. This seemingly simple series of black lines and spaces introduced more than 40 years ago holds real power to a business owner.

Brush up on your barcode knowledge by learning from these top five questions, and you’ll be ready to take the first step toward launching a successful product.

1. Is a UPC the same as a barcode?

For starters, it may be helpful to know some basic barcoding terms—GTIN and UPC. Many retailers require their suppliers to use Global Trade Item Numbers (or GTINs) in their product identification processes. These numbers uniquely identify a product when it is listed online, or is read by a barcode scanner. A universal product code (or UPC) is the most common type of barcode symbol—you see it in action at a store’s checkout counter every day. A UPC barcode is encoded with a product GTIN, making it easy to track a product on its journey to a customer. 

2. How do I get a barcode?

To create GTINs and UPC barcodes for your products, the first step is to get a GS1 Company Prefix, which can be acquired through a license agreement with GS1 US, the not-for-profit information standards organization. The Company Prefix makes up the first few numbers of a GTIN and links your brand with your products. It is an authentic and widely recognized way to represent your brand which is increasingly becoming a requirement of many retailers and online marketplaces. By identifying both the company and its products this way, startups can set themselves up for growth since these numbers are universally accepted by various trading partners.

Follow industry best practices and retailer requirements by creating a different GTIN for each product variation you sell. Product variations, such as different packaging quantities, colors, scents, or flavors, require unique GTINs to distinguish one variation from another.

3. Where is the best place to put a barcode on my product?

Each barcode can be printed and attached to a product, or incorporated into the product’s package design. Barcode placement can impact the ability of scanners to read your barcode. To optimize scanning at checkout, barcodes should generally be placed in the lower right-hand section of the back of the package. Avoid the edge of the package, and allow enough white space surrounding the barcode to help to ensure a clean scan. It’s also critical that the printed surface be smooth so nothing interferes with the scanner’s ability to read the barcode. While many small businesses print their own barcodes successfully, some work with solution providers that specialize in product set-up and can offer a variety of services related to barcoding.

4. Does it matter where I get my barcodes?

Barcodes sold by third-party companies may scan just fine at the checkout counter, but the GTIN encoded in the barcode may not identify your brand. Barcodes that are purchased—not constructed using a unique Company Prefix as the basis for your GTINs—will identify another brand owner. Taking this shortcut could create a growth obstacle if a retailer or online marketplace requires that your brand be uniquely identified in your product GTINs.

5. Do I still need a barcode if I’m only selling my product online?

The same identifier used for physical products is the same identifier you use to identify a product online. Some of the leading online retailers and marketplaces have started hiding product listings if they are not identified with a GTIN.

With all of the opportunity e-commerce represents to a small business, it is in the owner’s own best interest to comply with retailer identification requirements. In a recent study, 94 percent of consumers said they will either abandon a website or just give up on the online shopping experience altogether if they can’t find the information they are looking for on the site. With the proper unique product identification, your product can appear in more search engine results, and as a product manager, you can more easily ensure consistency between your product’s physical and digital presence.

Barcoding your products starts with establishing a unique brand identity that becomes the basic foundation for your company’s future growth. By barcoding products the right way from the beginning, you can ensure a better, more efficient shopping experience for consumers and a more uniform way to collaborate with retailers and other business partners.

About the author
Michelle Covey
Michelle Covey is Vice President, Retail Apparel and General Merchandise at GS1 US. With more than 20 years of experience working with retail supply chains, she is responsible for helping companies achieve source to store supply chain visibility — ensuring that the right product is in the right place at the right time for today’s consumer.
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