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Building Your Business with UPCs and GTINs

gtins and upcs

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By Michelle Covey, Vice President of Partnerships, GS1 US

Growth in e-commerce business has exploded over the past year. While the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) reports that there are 30.7 million businesses across the United States, the IBM Retail Index estimates that the shift away from physical stores to digital shopping has sped up by roughly five years. That’s a lot of virtual storefronts. Online entrepreneurs who want to set up their businesses for success understand the value of purchasing authentic barcodes as a matter of course for each product they sell. Authentic UPC barcodes, and the unique numbers associated with them (GTINs), specifically link each product to your entire brand and are essential when launching new items in online marketplaces, e-commerce and retail channels.

What are GTINs?

GTINs, or Global Trade Item Numbers, are the numbers encoded into a barcode that uniquely identify a product that is sold in stores or listed online. While marketplace guidelines will refer to both UPCs and GTINs, they are not interchangeable. The UPC (Universal Product Code) is a barcode symbol with black lines and the GTIN is the embedded identification number. Together, the barcode and the number make it easy for businesses to identify and track products. GTINs are increasingly used on their own in online listings to verify authenticity between a product’s physical presence and its digital identify.

Since GTINs help products surface in more search engine results online, there is a big opportunity for e-commerce businesses to identify products this way. Google research shows that merchants who add GTINs to their product data have seen a 20% increase in conversion rates.

GS1 US, a not-for-profit standards organization, best known as the administrator of the GTIN, helps companies to uniquely identify products, locations and other assets, across the supply chain. Additionally, the organization collaborates with a variety of industries to craft best practices for developing efficient supply chains and effective business relationships, as well as providing consumers access to trustworthy information about the products they buy. 

GS1 US offers multiple options for obtaining GTINs. For small businesses, the best option may be to license individual GS1 US GTINs for $30 each. For businesses that plan to launch 10 or more products or have product variations, they can license a GS1 Company Prefix, which allows brands to create GTINs in bundles of 10, 100, 1,000 and other bulk quantities. The Company Prefix is valuable because it links a brand to a product, therefore confirming authenticity. Single GTINs also come with a certificate to similarly demonstrate ownership.  

GS1 US offers an estimator tool, which helps business owners determine which option is right for them—an individual GS1 US GTIN or a GS1 Company Prefix—based on how many products they have, how many variations of the product there are, and how they anticipate their company will grow in the future. Assessing your plan for company growth will help you to scale your business appropriately. 

GS1 Company Prefixes are great for companies with growing product lines. It gives you the barcodes you need for today plus barcodes at your fingertips to quickly respond to growth opportunities. The Prefix also allows businesses to get multiple barcodes at a single time, as well as identify locations, mixed cases, create coupons, and create higher levels of packaging like a case or pallet.

Taking Your Product to Market on Amazon

GTINs assigned to a company’s products enable validation of brand ownership, thereby allowing companies to build credibility. Online marketplaces like Amazon require authentic GTINs that they can verify against the GS1 database because they help sellers prove that they are selling legitimate products. In fact, some retailers will hide product listings if they are not identified with a proper GTIN that links their brand to their product. As the online marketplace grows, there is an increasing awareness of the need to ensure consistent product identity and inventory management. As a result, many retailers specifically list GTINs in their seller guidelines as a requirement.

The importance of how a product is described is equally important. A survey by Periscope by McKinsey confirmed that pandemic-era shoppers place high value on complete product information and clear images. If product information isn’t easily accessible or trustworthy, shoppers may look elsewhere for the data. With the proper unique identification, a product can be surfaced in more search results leading to increased sales and loyalty. Online marketplaces are also more likely to work with brands long-term if they are able to ensure consistency between a product’s physical and digital presence with proper GTIN usage.  

Amazon’s Seller Central provides guidance on when products may be exempt, or if multipacks/bundles require additional GTINs. Generally, Amazon requires that each sellable unit have its own GTIN, including bundles (a grouping of similar hair accessories, for example) or multi-packs (a multi-pack of 4 boxes of crackers, for example). It is important to become familiar with Amazon’s rules for each, as there are specific items that are prohibited from being bundled or featured in a multipack. Product listings must contain specific information about the contents of these groupings. Amazon will check the GTINs in the GS1 Company Database (GEPIR®), which houses all the companies that have registered GTINs, to verify ownership.

Why Authentic GTINs Matter

While several websites offer cheap barcodes and GTINs, GS1 is the only organization authorized to license authentic GTINs. Purchasing them from a third party could mean your GTIN is already assigned to another business and could not only cause you to be delisted from e-commerce sites, but also separate you from your product’s activity. 

Listings that are not registered with GS1 are also vulnerable to bad actors posing as legitimate sellers. They can steal a company’s product listing, claim it as their own, and collect sales earnings for products that are never shipped. Also, some sellers looking for a shortcut around the marketplace’s GS1 Standards requirements may apply whatever GTIN they can find without any real knowledge of how unique identification works. Having an authentic GS1 barcode is one of the only ways to prove you are the owner of a listing and prevent hijacking of your listing. 

Mitchell Stern, Founder of SideHustle.Tips, agrees that UPCs and GTINs are a prerequisite for any scaleable business. “Having valid GTINs for every product variant is crucial for doing business with larger online retailers like Amazon and Walmart,” says Stern. “It’s what separates the amateurs from the professionals.”

Your listing is directly connected to you and your business. You’ve worked hard to develop and sell your products. Claim that ownership by being sure to license authentic GTINs for each product you sell. Having your products registered with GS1 US is also a great path to building a stellar seller reputation.Learn more from GS1 US and its many educational resources that describe how to not only get started, but how to grow your business.


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