Universal Product Code (UPC)

What is the Universal Product Code (UPC)?

A UPC, short for a universal product code, is a type of code printed on retail product packaging to assist in identifying a special item. Universal product code consists of two parts – the machine-readable barcode, which is a series of unique black bars, and the single 12-digit number below it. 

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The purpose of UPCs is to make it easy to recognize product features when an item is scanned at checkout. Features as the brand name, item, size, and color. That’s why they were created in the first place – to speed up the checkout process at market stores. UPCs are also helpful in the following inventory within a store or shed.

Parts of a UPC

After paying a fee to join, GS1 assigns a 6-digit to the company identification number, which becomes the first six digits in the UPC on all the company’s products. That number recognizes the particular company of the item. UPC barcodes can be printed at various densities to accommodate a variety of printing and scanning processes.

There are also five digits of the universal product code (UPC), and they are called an item number. Those numbers refer to the actual product itself. Within each company is a person responsible for assigning item numbers. They assure that the same name isn’t used more than once and that old numbers, referring to discontinued products are phased out.

Many consumer products have numerous varieties, for example- flavor, size, or color. Each type of variety requires its item number. So a box of 24 one-inch earings has a separate item number than a box of 24 two-inch earings.

UPC Features

Space Pattern

Every universal product code (UPC) number has a certain unique pattern of bars and spaces. It is extremely important for these to be printed out the right way.

Quiet Zone

The area left and right from the barcode has to be free of all printing. This area is called a quiet zone. It prepares the scanner for the bar code.


The level of contrast between spaces and bars determines the readability of the barcode. The most reliable color combination that can be used is black bars/white spaces. If this is not possible, then any combination with dark bars and light spaces is usable.


Picture 1. Universal Product Code (UPC) examples

The first digit of the manufacturer’s identification number is special. It is called the number system character. The following data shows you what different number system characters mean:

  • 0 = Standard UPC number (must have a zero to do zero-suppressed numbers)
  • 1 = Reserved
  • 2 = Random-weight items (fruits, vegetables, meats, etc.)
  • 3 = Pharmaceuticals
  • 4 = In-store marketing for retailers (A store can set up its own code, but no other store will understand them.)
  • 5 = Coupons
  • 6 = Standard UPC number
  • 7 = Standard UPC number 
  • 8 = Reserved
  • 9 = Reserved

Advantages of UPCs

UPCs have plenty of benefits to manufacturers and consumers. UPC makes it possible for barcode scanners to identify a product, inventory information and its associated price immediately so they improve speed immensely. 

UPC’s improves efficiency and productivity by reducing the need to access product information manually.

Without a doubt, UPC traces inventory much more carefully than hand counting. Thanks to it, we know when more product is needed on retail shelves or in warehouses. Also, when there is an issue with a specific product and consumers who bought it need to be alerted or a recall issued, UPCs allow products to be tracked through production to distribution to retail storehouses and even into customer homes.

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Universal Product Code (UPC) was last modified: June 13th, 2021 by Mirjana
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