The Universal Product Code (UPC) is a 12-digit barcode system used primarily in the United States and Canada to identify and track products in stores and online.

Detailed Explanation

The UPC system was introduced in the 1970s to help retailers and manufacturers streamline the checkout process and manage inventory more efficiently. Each UPC is unique to a specific product, allowing for quick identification and pricing at the point of sale.

A UPC consists of two parts:

  1. A machine-readable barcode that can be scanned to retrieve the number.
  2. A 12-digit number that can be read by humans.

The first six to nine digits of the UPC are the manufacturer’s unique identification number, while the remaining digits identify the specific product. The last digit is a check digit, used to verify the code’s authenticity.

In today’s digital age, UPCs play a crucial role beyond just retail checkouts. They are used in e-commerce, inventory management, and even in marketing for tracking product sales and performance.


When purchasing a box of cereal at a grocery store, the cashier scans the UPC barcode to quickly bring up the product’s price and information.

An online retailer uses UPCs to manage inventory and ensure accurate product listings on their website.

Related Terms and Concepts:

Barcode, SKU (Stock Keeping Unit), QR Code, EAN (European Article Number)

Frequently asked questions about UPCs

What’s the difference between UPC and EAN? While both are barcode systems, UPC is primarily used in the U.S. and Canada and has 12 digits, whereas EAN is used internationally and typically has 13 digits.

How can a business obtain a UPC for its products? Businesses can obtain UPCs from GS1, the global standards organization responsible for barcode issuance.

Do all products need a UPC? While most retail products require a UPC for sales and inventory management, some small businesses or handmade products might not have one unless they are sold through major retailers.

Can a product have more than one UPC? Typically, a product has one UPC. However, if there are significant changes to the product, such as a new size or formula, it might get a new UPC.

How do UPCs benefit consumers? UPCs streamline the checkout process, ensuring accurate pricing. They also allow consumers to compare products and prices online easily.

Are there any limitations to the UPC system? As the retail and e-commerce landscape evolves, there are discussions about the need for more advanced systems that can store more data than the traditional UPC.

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