What Is UPC Code?

By Chad Anderson

UPC stands for Universal Product Code and is commonly recognized as the bar code along the sides of products in North America. UPCs have to be purchased by retailers, and then attached to their products so they can be identified quickly in the market. The code allows for instant sorting of products across several retailers and markets.


A UPC code is a 12-digit number with the bar code comprised of 7-bit codes that represent each digit in the sequence. There are exactly 30 bars in the UPC code sequence, including the start and end bars. The UPC code is read by a digital scanner that allows it to interpret each of these bars and match it up with a database for speedy check out.


There are several types of common code prefixes that come with UPCs. When the first number is 0 through 1 or 6 through 9, this designates a general product. The number 2 is reserved for local use, such as warehouse sorting or for items sold by varying weights in the grocery store, such as vegetables or meat products. The number 3 is reserved just for pharmaceuticals, while 4 and 5 are kept for local use and with coupon codes.


The standard dimension of a UPC is .013 inches in length, but the codes can be reduced or enlarged by up to 200 percent and can still be read by standard UPC bar code readers. The height of a UPC is typically at 1 inch, but this can be expanded as well, as long as it remains five times the width dimension.


The first expedited grocery system was brought about in 1932 using punch cards. Another code was later patented in 1952, but never came into use. In the 1960s, railroad companies began to play with bar code marking for their cars but eventually abandoned the idea all together. In the early 1970s, a group of grocery stores and technology leaders banded together to create the Uniform Product Code that eventually came, with the help of IBM, to be the UPC we know today. Now it is required by law that companies purchase a UPC bar code to stamp or print on their products.The first ever UPC marked item was checked out in 1974 and was a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum from a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The UPC database now has over one-million different registered bar codes. Recently, an extra digit has been added to the UPC code to create an EAN or European Article Number. This number provides the UPC standard with enough digits to service products for the entire world.


The implementation of the UPC standard ushered in a new era of warehouse and grocery sorting that utilized and accepted more efficient solutions. With the legislative mandates that made it law to have a UPC on products, the entire retail industry became identifiable with a single swipe. Now UPC codes appear across North America and are even read overseas. Various bar code standards, branching from the UPC-A we use today, help to identify dozens of other products for retailers. In the modern age it is hard to think of a time when checking out of the grocery store was more than a swipe under a red light.