What do the numbers on a barcode mean?

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We never really stop and think about barcodes. They’re just something that’s there for cashiers to scan so the right price comes up on the cash register. While that may be their purpose, there’s a lot more that goes into barcodes than just some lines and numbers. Those digits actually mean something, and each one is unique to the product you’re buying. Let’s break it down.

Understanding the standard layout

Your standard UPC-A barcode has 12 numbers. One on the very left, another on the far right, and then two sets of five in the middle. What do these all represent?

Well, the very first digit is a system identifier. This is used to classify what the product is. The numbers zero, one, six, seven and eight are all standard UPC (Universal Product Codes). Two is used for randomly weighed items, such as meat, while three is for products related to health. Four is reserved for other non-food items and five and nine for coupons.

The next set of digits on the barcode relate to the manufacturer’s number, while the second set of five corresponds to the product number. The final number is known as a check digit which is used to scan for errors.

Other barcodes

Although UPC-A barcodes are standard in the United States, they’re not the only type available. EAN-13 barcodes, which are used around the world and occasionally in the States, have a slightly different structure. Here, the first two or three numbers are used to differentiate where the EAN organization responsible for the product is located. If the barcode starts with the numbers 00-13, then the company is established in either the US or Canada. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the product was made there.

If an organization is based in the States, but its products were created in the UK, then the barcode would still start with a value between 00-13. Although these digits differ from the UPC-A structure, the rest of the numbers correlate to the same layout as those barcodes.

What about small barcodes?

Not every product you buy will have space for a full-sized barcode. In these instances, a UPC-E barcode will be used, which is a shortened version of the original structure. Here, several rules have to be followed.

When manufacturer numbers end in 000, 100 or 200, the product code uses three digits. The first three digits of the manufacturer number are also used. However, these are separated on the barcode. While the first two digits are placed on the left of the product code, the third is to the right of it.
When manufacturer numbers end in 300, 400, etc. up to 900, the product code uses two digits. These follow the first three digits of the manufacturer number and precede a three.
When manufacturer numbers end in 10, 20, etc. up to 90, the product code uses one digit. This follows the first four digits of the manufacturer number and precedes a four.
When manufacturer numbers don’t end in zero, the product code uses one digit as well. However, five digits of the manufacturer come before it.

Serving a purpose

These numbers aren’t solely used as a way to distinguish a product’s origins. They’re also incredibly convenient for cashiers who aren’t able to scan the barcode. If it’s been damaged or the scanner won’t pick it up, the cashier can type in the numbers so that the product will still go through the checkout. That way, you don’t have to go through the hassle of searching the store for the same product with a working barcode.

It looks like there’s more to barcodes than just a series of random numbers and lines. Now, next time you buy something at the store, you can impress the cashier with your knowledge. Whether they’ll care is another matter entirely.

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