How Do I... Get a UPC Bar Code?

Small businesses seeking to sell their wares through larger retailers for resale will most likely need a Universal Product Code - that ubiquitous black and white striped identification tag appearing on products ranging from soda cans, tags on stuffed animals or boxes containing electronics.

The identification numbers allow a retailer to easily track sales of a product in its inventory system and can be used most anywhere in the world. Although books and magazines require a different coding system.

The numbers inside a bar code are known as GS1 identification keys, and they are only assigned by GS1, a nonprofit group that sets standards for global commerce. The U.S. branch is in Dayton, Ohio.

To obtain a UPC, you first must become a GS1 member and pay a fee to the global standards-setting body. It's not cheap. Membership will cost at least $750 for the initial fee and then there's an annual fee of at least $150. GS1 calculates member fees based on annual revenue and on the number of unique products the member sells. The GS1 (formerly known as the Uniform Code Council) says once a firm completes a membership application, it takes up to five days to process it.

When a company becomes a member, it's assigned an identification number that is globally unique and reserved just for use by that company. That number enables a firm to create its own identification code. A company needs a different UPC code for each type of product it sells. Each bar code reflects a product's weight, cost, size, etc. For example, a 12 oz. can of Coke has a different UPC than a 16 oz. can or a 2 liter bottle.

All retailers scanning merchandise at a checkout counter require a business to label its merchandise with a bar code. If a business simply wants to use bar codes on its products for internal use like inventory or tracking and doesn't plan to sell its products to retailers for resale, it doesn't need a number from GS1.

A UPC can be printed with a special printer and attached to the item for sale or its packaging, like a box containing a television, or made a part of a product's package design like a package of gum.

There are plenty of bar code software and hardware available. A cost effective option is to purchase a thermal label-maker that prints basic bar codes for about $100 from any large office supply retailer.

For small businesses that just can't fork over the GS1 fee, there are a few firms such as Aurea Media that purchase bar codes in bulk from GS1 and resell them. Aurea of Calgary, Alberta, which specializes in CD and DVD replication services, will resell a bar code via an e-mail attachment for $80 for the first bar code and $35 for each additional one. Reseller, a Web site run by Subdivisions Media in Los Angeles, offers similar pricing.

Aurea owner Terry Johnsgaard describes a bar code as an identifier like a "home address or a telephone number." He said his customers sell products with Aurea bar codes in places such as Amazon.comBest Buy and Wal-Mart. But his Web site encourages customers to consider getting their own bar code license through GS1 as their product or service becomes more successful.

If a business purchases a bar code from Aurea, the five-digit prefix always represents Aurea Media, because the first five digits of all bar codes identify the license holder. So Aurea gives a bar code customer a member certificate confirming that the customer owns the bar code. But if Aurea or any bar code reseller goes belly up, there could be complications for the resellers' customers. "It is risky," Johnsgaard acknowledged. But it's a solution for many small businesses that just need a handful of UPCs. GS1 only sells them in blocks of 100.

"We're just trying to help the little guy and give them a start," he said, noting that Aurea has four employees.

– 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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