Everything You Need to Know About Barcoding Your Products

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 Code

Bar codes are extremely simple to understand but all of the literature available tends to over complicates 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 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.


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.

Like Us on Facebook for tips on finding great products to import (and tons more)

    • David Bryant
    • David Bryant

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *