What Is a UPC Code?

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  • Written By: Maggie Worth
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
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A uniform product code, or UPC code, is a numeric code used to identify a product. The code contains two parts: the number and a corresponding series of lines called a bar code. These codes are generally printed directly onto merchandise or its packaging and can be scanned using a handheld code gun or flatbed code scanner. Such codes were introduced as a way to easily track merchandise, either in a store or warehouse environment.

Most items available in retail stores, including food, clothing, and electronic equipment, are marked with UPC codes on their packaging. In retail and online stores, these codes are entered into the merchandise management computer system. Store employees scan the codes to check inventory into the store and the system removes items from inventory when a customer buys them at the register. This allows the store manager to easily track quantities on hand and to see which items sell the best. The system also stores other information, including the cost and sale price of each item, the date in and out for each item, and a complete description of the product.


In a warehouse, UPC codes are also programmed into a tracking computer. Workers scan the UPC code of each item as it is checked into the warehouse and scan it again when it is checked out. This helps the warehouse manager track and manage inventory, and lets him know how much of each item is on hand at any given time. In addition, warehouse computers can be programmed to track the location of each item within the warehouse. This helps workers easily locate the correct item in a large warehouse.

In most cases, the UPC code consists of 12 numbers. The first and last numbers are called check numbers and are often left off when entering numbers into the computer or printing sale tags. The first five digits of the remaining 10-digit code indicate the manufacturer and are used exclusively by that company. Small manufacturers may have only one code, while large manufacturers may have many.

The second set of five digits is unique to the product. Each of a manufacturer's products will have a different code. When combined, the full 10-digit code can be used to identify the manufacturer and the product.

Above the number are computer-generated lines encoded with the UPC number. These bars are what a scanner actually reads and translates into numbers. The term "UPC code" is an example of acronym redundancy because the "C" actually stands for "code." When someone says "UPC code," they are really saying "uniform product code code."


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