Are Barcodes and UPC Barcodes the same? What is a Barcode?

Every day I am very fortunate to speak with excited entrepreneurs who can hardly wait to introduce the world to their brand new product. From selling T-shirts and CDs to fishing lures and wine, entrepreneurs all come to me with the same set of questions:

What is a barcode?

Are barcodes and UPC barcodes the same thing?

How do barcodes work?

How many barcodes do I need?

The list goes on and on.

To this day, it never ceases to amaze me just how many misconceptions still exist around barcodes. With this multi-part blog series about barcodes, I hope to clarify the entire process for you, once and for all.

Let’s start with the first question: What is a Barcode?

By far the most common type of barcode used in the world is the UPC barcode or simply UPC (short for Universal Product Code).  UPC barcodes can be found on retail products all over the world.  A UPC barcode is simply a unique, 12-digit number that nobody else in the world has. The black lines of a barcode are merely a special font, called the UPC-A font, which correlates exactly to the numbers lying directly beneath them. Think of it as a social security number for each one of your products and think of the black lines as a sort of visual Morse Code that computer scanners can read. 

Even though there are many conspiracy theories attached to UPC barcodes, there is no hidden information actually stored or encrypted into a barcode. For example, to create a UPC barcode, you simply set your font style to UPC, type in your barcode number and up pops the black lines. The UPC font is used because computer scanners, especially older ones, have a much easier time reading straight black lines than they do reading curvy numbers. This UPC font is also the reason why you often hear barcodes referred to as UPC codes or just UPC’s. 

Now let’s address the second question:  Are barcodes and UPC barcodes the same thing?

In the most common usage out in the retail world, the easy answer is Yes.  If a retailer asks you if you have a barcode on your product, they are basically asking if you have a UPC barcode on your product.  UPC barcodes are what are found on all retail products in North America and they work everywhere in the world.  Of course, there are dozens of different types of barcodes used for all manner of specialized purposes but when it comes to the retail world where you are selling your product, asking about barcodes is the same as asking about UPC barcodes. (Not to confuse you more, but outside of North America there is a comparable bar code to UPC barcodes called an EAN barcode – but if you have a UPC barcode on your product that is all you will ever need.)

How does the UPC barcoding system work?

Stores use UPC barcodes in conjunction with their inventory management system to help keep track of how much of a product they may have on their shelves at any given time. Thanks to the UPC barcode system, a manual shelf count is no longer needed. The store can simply type a UPC barcode number into their computer to find out what has been sold and what they need to re-stock.

Setting up your UPC barcode inside of a store is also very easy and it works the same way for every store – from to Whole Foods to Best Buy.

For example, when you go to sell your product at a retailer (i.e. Best Buy or Whole Foods or, that retailer will have you fill out a product information form. On that form, you will put your company and product details as well as your 12-digit UPC barcode number. The retailer then manually enters that information into their inventory management computer. When they scan your UPC barcode at the register, it calls up your form in their system and gives you credit for the sale. Your UPC barcode is a necessary tool to link everything together.

Once you place your UPC barcode onto your product, either by printing it onto a sticker or placing it into the artwork of your packaging, your work is done. The retailer does the rest.

I hope that this clears up some of the barcode questions you might have. If you still have some questions about UPC barcodes or simply want to know more about the history of barcodes, please see my other blogs on this subject. It is helpful information you will use as you prepare your product for the retail world.

Hope your day is prosperous and Happy Barcoding!

If you need more information on Amazon barcodes, please visit our page:

For more information on Best Buy barcodes, please visit this page:

To learn more about UPC barcodes for Jet, visit our page:



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We literally wrote the Book on Barcodes! Contains essential information about UPC barcodes and how to succeed on Amazon.

– Erik Quisling

Erik Quisling is the Founder and CEO of Started in 1999, has been featured in both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and has helped more than 100,000 businesses bring their products to market with barcodes.
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