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Product Coding 101

From UPCs and SKUs to How to Print Them, We’re Breaking Down the Basics

Running a successful business demands organization and efficiency – two things product coding can help with. At its most basic, product coding is about using a unique sequence of numbers to identify a specific product and differentiate it from others. When it comes to creating or choosing these codes, however, there’s more room for variation. Likewise, deciding how to apply these codes to your products or packaging means choosing the right equipment for the job. For all the details, read on.

Item Identification Codes

Product codes can be vastly variable. While the barcode might be the most widely known, you may also choose a code for internal use only. For example, one common company-specific code is the SKU, or “Stock Keeping Unit.” As their name suggests, these codes help businesses keep track of merchandise. Individual segments within the longer sequence of numbers can identify specific characteristics of the unique product, such as color or size. SKU lengths can be variable, but it’s recommended that they be between 4 to 12 characters. Similarly, SKUs can contain both letters and numbers, meaning the creator can use prefixes or other meaningful abbreviations to make the sequence easier to read.

Other codes are universal – literally. The Universal Product Code, or UPC, is standardized and can be used across retailers and distributors. Assigned by GS1, UPC numbers are consistently 12 digits long and contain only numbers. These codes are necessary for brands looking to sell their products at larger stores and are also often needed for online sales.

Other Types of Product Codes

Beyond UPCs, EANs, and other identifying codes, you made need to include other information on your product such as a best-by or use-by date. These details are particularly important for pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and food industries. Much like barcodes or SKUs, this information must be easily readable for the shopper. Further, these details may differ across lots or batches of products; as a result, a flexible coding system that can quickly adapt to variable information is ideal.

Printing Product Codes

Once you’ve obtained your codes, it’s time to apply them to the product. To do so, you’ll need a printer that’s capable of creating clear, readable images. If you only need to print simple numbers like best-by dates, you may find that a dot matrix printer fulfills all of your requirements. For those printing more complex images like barcodes, an inkjet printer is the most common choice for their high-resolution prints. You’ll also need to determine the material that you’ll be printing on. While many printers have adapted to better function with a variety of substrates, this should still be considered.

For businesses that need their coding to be mobile, handheld coders are the ideal solution. These coders produce high-quality images and can be carried around the warehouse for quick labeling, often saving producers time and money.


Not sure where to get started? We can help. At GCB Solutions, we have over 30 years of experience in product coding, packaging, and printing equipment. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation or contact us today to learn more about how we can help your business.


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