Universal Product Codes (UPCs) Explained

Melissa Traverse

What is a UPC?

Universal Product Code. It’s a unique barcode + 12 digit sequence that identifies a specific product along with your company information. 

Why is it important? 

Assuming you want to sell your product to a distributor or a retailer, they will require it. It’s how things like brand name, item, size, and color are identified when your product is in a warehouse or scanned at checkout. 

UPC best practices for CPG

UPC Code Best Practices

Think Ahead

A couple of key questions to ask yourself: 

  • How many products do I plan on having?  
  • How are they going to be packaged? 

Know that you’ll need at least 2 UPC codes for each (product UPC + case UPC), possibly three, if you’re going to have an outer pack. UPC codes come in packs of digits: 10, 100, 1000, etc.  Buying at least 100 almost always makes sense even if you only plan on having 4 or 5 skus.

Create rules 

Instead of randomly assigning the numbers to products, create rules that will help you stay organized.  For example, you may choose to assign the numbers in your original product line to start off with a 1 so when you create a line extension you’ll be able to differentiate with a different number.  The next digit might call out whether it’s a master case or a unit.  

Get Organized

Tie in your UPC codes into your internal reporting so you can associate the number with a product immediately. 

How do I create UPCs for a CPG product? 

Once you’ve made a plan, you’ll create an account and your barcodes with GS1 US, the Global Standards Organization. They are the regulating body for all UPC codes. 

You’ll be assigned a “company prefix” that is used across all your company’s products. That number identifies the manufacturer/brand.

The next digits identify the product. If you had had a product that had 3 flavors and 3 different sizes, you’d have a unique sequence for each, or 9 total. 

The last digit is the check digit. It confirms that the UPC is valid. If the check digit code is incorrect, the UPC won’t scan.

What do most brands get wrong with UPCs? 

Not purchasing enough UPC codes 

Once you buy a company prefix, you’re locked in to the number of UPC’s you own, so, as mentioned above, you need to think ahead and buy for the future.

Using Unit UPCs on a master case 

Using your unit UPC on your cases could result in having to take back all the product that’s landed with your distributor. 

Using discounted or repurposed UPC codes

If you take away nothing else from this post:


Major retailers like Kroger and Amazon will require you to own your prefix because, if you don’t, it is likely mapped to another product. 

Struggling with your UPCs? 

It might sound crazy, but we love getting UPCs sorted.

Drop us a line today!