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Bar Codes, UPCs, an Amazon Labels – Everything You Need to Know

Bar coding is one the simplest concepts yet something that importers and retailers get confused by the most (I know I was). And for importers, we often wonder if our products need to be bar coded and if so, how do they get these bar codes?

Bar codes are extremely simple to understand but all of the literature available tends to overcomplicate things by getting into the exact technicalities of the bar code numbering system. Take for example this excerpt from HowStuffWorks.com:

bar code

Description of how bar codes work from HowStuffWorks.com

Jeez! Can it be any more complicated? It’s really not so difficult.

Understanding Bar Codes vs UPC Codes

The first thing to understand is that a bar code consists of a universal product code and a bar code that simply is a representation of that number and allows a product to be quickly scanned. As anyone who has ever bought anything knows, a cashier can simply type in those twelve numbers below, 0-51111-40759-2, and achieve the same thing as actually scanning the bar code.

Bar codes consist of a scannable portion and a unique identifier portion

Bar codes consist of a scannable portion and a unique identifier portion

You can generate a bar code for free from a million websites. Go ahead and try it. Type in your phone number into site 1 and site 2 – both generate the same, scannable bar code which is a representation of your phone number. So really, it’s not the bar code that is difficult and costly to acquire, it’s the UPC Code.

Buying Bar Codes UPC Codes

Here’s the low down on UPC Codes. A UPC Code is simply a 12 or 13 digit code that is guaranteed not to be used by any other product. This is important. Pretend that Apple decided to give its Apple iPhone 6 the UPC Code of 0-51111-40759-2. And pretend that Samsung decided to give it’s Galaxy S6 the same UPC code of 0-51111-40759-2. A store retailer could potentially have the same item, with the same UPC Code, and the same bar code. It would be insanity!

So to make sure no two products have the same two UPC Codes, a couple of different organizations, specifically GS1 in the United States and Canada, regulate all of these UPC codes. If you’re familiar with how domain names work, it’s similar to how ICANN allocates domain names. So for the pretty price of around $1000 a year, GS1 will give you about 1000 UPC Codes that they have never given to anyone else. But wait you ask, does GS1 store information about my product like it’s name, dimensions, description, etc.? Nope. It simply guarantees to you exclusive use to some numbers.

Does that sound like an absurd amount of money to pay just to be guaranteed some numbers? It is absurd!!

Also keep in mind that every unique product needs its own UPC Code. That includes every size, style, and color variation. So if you sell sneakers in size 7, 8,9,10,11, and 12  in the color blue and the color red, you need 12 UPC Codes for those, even if they’re identical besides the color and size.

Buying Individual UPCs

There are companies out there who will sell you UPC codes individually. They normally just pay GS1 $900 for their 1000 UPC Codes, and then sell these individually for $2 a piece or so (they just doubled their money!). Just like how a Vancouver Canucks Season ticket holder may part out individual tickets. You are implicitly buying a promise that one of these companies won’t sell the same product to another company. If they do, that defeats the whole purpose – your UPC code will be in conflict with another company.

Most people who only need a few UPC Codes buy from resellers although big retailers forbid you from doing this.

But Do I Even Need Bar Codes and/or UPC Codes?

If you’re selling all of your imported products directly to the consumer and not selling to any other retailer, you don’t need bar codes or UPC Codes.

Remember bar codes and UPC Codes are strictly a retail phenomenon. No government agency cares if your imported products have bar codes on them.

bar code scanning

Bar codes help to scan inventory quickly and efficiently. This might not be as important for us, but for big retailers, it is critical and they require products to be bar coded.

When you do need bar codes is if you’re selling to a retailer. Almost all retailers, big and small, need your items to be bar coded (imagine buying groceries from the corner store and the cashier had to type in the UPC code for every item). The big retailers like Walmart need you to actually purchase your bar codes directly through GS1 or other authorized dealer and not a reseller.

But What About Amazon? And Specifically, What About Amazon FBA?

If you’re planning on sending your items to Amazon FBA, Amazon FBA requires a bar code on each item. But….

That bar code can be what is called an Amazon FNSKU. An FNSKU is just like a UPC Code, which is unique for Amazon Products (or ASINs in Amazon lingo). Amazon has essentially created its own version of UPC Codes.

Amaozn FNSKU

Example Amazon FNSKU

If you private label your item to Amazon (which requires an Amazon Seller Pro account) they will assign your product an ASIN and an FNSKU if you make it fulfilled by Amazon. You can then print these labels for free through Amazon. Woo Hoo! Incidentally, when you’re researching sending items to Amazon FBA, you may read about co-mingled inventory and having your products labelled by Amazon. If you’re importing your products from China, this almost certainly won’t apply to you and you will in fact need to have your items bar coded with one of the FNSKU bar codes like shown above.

If you plan on using Amazon FBA and not selling to any other retailers, you should have your Supplier in China stick the FNSKU bar codes on your products in China – it saves you the work of doing it yourself.

Conclusion

See, bar codes aren’t that hard to understand. Hopefully that clears up any misunderstandings and confusion surrounding bar codes. If you have any other questions, please post in the comments section below.

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    sarah
    November 16, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    To quickly generate barcodes online, I recommend http://barcode.online/
    It’s free, no registration needed and over 30 symbol types supported.

  • Reply
    Chris
    December 9, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Hi Dave,

    I believe you still need a UPC for Amazon FBA private label. It’s how you set up the listing in the first place.

    You are right, though, that once you have it set up, you don’t need to actually put it on the box. If you’re only doing FBA, you can actually print the FNSKU directly on the label.

    Many FBA people make the mistake of printing the UPC code on the label and then paying somebody to put a sticker over top of it!

    Chris

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      December 10, 2015 at 5:15 pm

      If you have a professional selling account you don’t need a UPC for private labeling. You *might* need to have your brand registered at Amazon now, but if so that only takes a few minutes.

      If you use a UPC instead of FNSKU there is also the issue you need to comingle your inventory which brings in a host of other problems.

  • Reply
    AT
    March 11, 2016 at 1:42 am

    Hi Dave,

    I an Amazon US seller and now trying to expanding to UK. Before this, I do not require any barcode but it seems I can’t list a product without it.

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      March 11, 2016 at 8:46 pm

      Hmm, I’ve never sold in the UK but this seems peculiar. I wonder if you don’t have the ability to list private label products in the UK? In any case, Seller Central should be able to answer this.

  • Reply
    Sean Lee
    May 23, 2017 at 8:23 am

    Hi Dave,
    Thank you for the info.
    If I have a private label, wouldn’t just printing UPC/EAN on the box and use it for FBA (comingle) be easier and time-saving?
    What are the downsides of comingle when I am the only one selling the item on Amazon as I am the owner of that private label?

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      May 23, 2017 at 4:07 pm

      The downside is someone can hijack your listing, send in a bunch of empty boxes with a bar code on it and Amazon will never know whether you or the hijacker sent in the empty boxes. Rare but possible.

  • Reply
    Michelle
    June 9, 2017 at 7:08 am

    Do you need the UPC for customs (bringing in product from China to US)? My product already has a printed FNSKU, but I am worried that customs might scan it and don´t know if it comes up since it is not a UPC? Amazon has my UPC in their listing though. I had to put it in so I could then get the FNSKU from them.

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      June 14, 2017 at 5:45 am

      No, customs does not care about bar codes or UPCs.

  • Reply
    Lindsay
    June 9, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Hi David!

    Thank you for this info. It is some of the best I have found on UPC info. I am creating a product in China that is not listed on Amazon so I needed a UPC # to create an Amazon listing. I am going to have my supplier add the Amazon ASIN to the packaging. Do I need to need to have the UPC # attached to my product as well? It sounds like I may just need the UPC to create my listing and it doesn’t need to be attached to my product as long as I have the ASIN on the packaging.

    Thank you,
    Lindsay

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      June 14, 2017 at 5:50 am

      You need a bar code one way or the other. The Amazon bar code, an FNSKU, is based on the ASIN but Amazon does not care if you print that human readable ASIN (i.e. B300VS03040) anywhere on the box. You NEED to have the bar code. Amazon doesn’t care if you have a UPC based bar code or ASIN based FNSKU bar code.

  • Reply
    Tonia
    July 1, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    I am brand new so please excuse the ignorance. I am still a little confused and have a few questions. If I am importing an item from China to Amazon FBA, do I need to obtain a UPC and send it to my manufacturer to apply to the item? Also, then is this considered a “private label” item? You mentioned purchasing the UPC’s from GS1 at xxx rate, however, I see many, many people purchasing the UPC’s on eBay and the like with no problems, thoughts? One other question, it sounded like when just importing and selling on Amazon and not to other retailers there’s an FNSKU, so is there a way to get around having to have an actual official UPC and if so, how? I tried listing my product and it needs one of 6 numbers (ASINEANGCIDGTIDGTINUPC). Thank you a ton in advance for your assistance!!

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      July 3, 2017 at 2:25 am

      Yes, Amazon requires you to have either a FNSKU or one of the other 6 numbers you listed (UPC and EAN being the most common). To get an FNSKU you need to either be brand registered with Amazon or get a UPC exemption. You can technically use a UPC code from a reseller (at much cheaper rates than GS1) but Amazon officially forbids this – many people still do it though (and I have myself at times).

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