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GTIN vs. UPC: How these codes help you track your inventory

December 8, 2023 | Published by Faire

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If you plan to sell products—as either a wholesaler or a retailer—there are some abbreviations you’ll need to learn to navigate key systems. For example, knowing the difference between GTIN and UPC (as well as SKU vs. UPC) is key to consistently tracking your sales

As a first step, picture a barcode. What you see in your mind’s eye is likely a string of digits under a collection of vertical black lines. Those vertical lines are a Universal Product Code (UPC), and the digits are a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN).

To help you understand the role they play in the order fulfillment process, let’s break down what information is contained in each of these codes. 

What is a GTIN?

A GTIN is a unique string of digits that identifies an item on its journey from manufacturer to consumer. GTINs can come in various lengths depending on the specific type and application:

GTIN-8 • An 8-digit GTIN
• Largely used in North America
• Paired with a UPC to make a barcode
• For small products with limited space for coding
GTIN-12 • A 12-digit GTIN
• Largely used in North America
• Paired with a UPC to make a barcode
GTIN-13 • A 13-digit GTIN
• Used in Europe and other parts of the world
• Paired with a European Article Number (EAN) to make a barcode
GTIN-14 • A 14-digit GTIN 
• In North America: paired with a UPC to make a barcode 
• Outside of North America: paired with an EAN to make a barcode 
• Used for more detailed product identification

The numbers within a GTIN are not randomly assigned. Each one communicates a specific piece of information.

  • The first digit of the GTIN is called the Number System Digit. It specifies the number and format of that specific GTIN.
  • The second set of digits—which range in length—is called the Company Prefix. It identifies the manufacturer as the owner of the barcode and the product it’s on.
  • The next set of digits—which also ranges in length—is called the Item Reference. It represents a particular product in a company’s roster.
  • The final digit in a GTIN is called a Check Digit. It guarantees the accuracy of the GTIN. 

Through this system, GTIN identifies products, enabling efficient management of inventory, supply chain processes, and point-of-sale transactions.

What is a UPC?

After reading all of that, you might ask yourself, “If a GTIN contains so much detailed information, then why do we need the black vertical lines of a UPC?”

Those lines are a quick way to encode numbers because humans can’t just glance at, memorize, and interpret a long string of digits. So each of the lines in a UPC represents a number. Some lines are thick, some are thin, and they’re all arranged in a special way. This arrangement creates a unique pattern. 

Now, the human eye isn’t able to decipher the information in that pattern either, but it can be instantly read by any machine that can scan a barcode. 

So for any item with a barcode, your customers won’t have to stand around and wait for the cashier to manually type in long codes—it’s a quick scan instead. And if you are a vendor working with retail partners, they will be able to scan your barcode in order to add your product to their point-of-sale system inventory

Why are these codes important? 

While a speedy checkout is certainly good for business, there are other benefits to a barcode that combines an item’s GTIN and UPC. 

1. Sets a standard method for trade partners to identify goods and services
Each GTIN uniquely identifies a specific product variant. This includes information about the manufacturer, the product itself, and sometimes the packaging level. This specificity allows for accurate tracking of individual items within a product line.

2. Helps you track goods all the way through the supply chain
When products are shipped from one location to another, GTINs are scanned at various points in the supply chain. This helps ensure that the right products are picked, packed, and shipped, reducing the likelihood of shipping errors.

3. Fights counterfeiting in the supply line
Customs and regulatory authorities can use GTINs to verify the authenticity of products at various points of entry, such as ports or border checkpoints. This helps prevent counterfeit goods from entering the legitimate supply chain.

4. Makes it easier to return or recall products
Retailers can use GTINs to quickly identify affected products and notify consumers about recalls or returns. The unique identification provided by GTINs helps in accurately communicating which specific products are involved and need to be returned or replaced.

5. Allows inventory to be quickly and accurately maintained
Scanning GTINs during receiving, storage, and order fulfillment processes allows for real-time tracking of stock levels and helps prevent running out or overstocking. This is especially important for people who are selling across platforms.

UPC and GTIN codes are two sides of the same coin, but they each have their own roles to play. Barcodes keep supply chain and inventory tracking accurate and efficient so you can run your business better. 

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