SKU vs UPC vs Barcodes: What’s the Difference?

What is a stock keeping unit (SKU)?

The (custom alphanumeric code that a merchant creates and assigns to each of their goods) is known as the goods’ stock keeping unit (SKU).

Each product (including product variations) should have its own unique SKU, allowing the merchant to easily distinguish items from one another. This makes inventory management and tracking much easier.

Each business will have its own system of regulations for creating and managing SKUs. However, the most common components of an itemized description are 8-10 characters long (such as color, size, model number, product number) that represent the product’s key features.

What is a universal product code (UPC)?

A UPC, or Universal Product Code, is a 12-digit numerical code and barcode that is assigned to a product and remains consistent across sellers, territories, and sales channels.

The first six to nine digits of a UPC identify the company that owns the intellectual property rights to the product. The next two to five digits are determined by the UPC owner. The final digit is the sum of all preceding digits, ensuring that no two UPCs are identical.

Because UPCs are globally accepted and acknowledged, the GS1 is responsible for their implementation and enforcement. The manufacturer of the product in question must acquire GS1-standardized UPCs.

What is a barcode?

Barcodes are machine readable images that are made up of a series of parallel black and white lines of various lengths and widths.

Barcodes are used in retail for product identification. Barcodes may be found on SKUs, but not all barcodes are valid for use with UPCs. In essence, a barcode is a visual representation of an SKU’s or UPC’s numeric code.

SKU vs. UPC vs. Barcodes: Breaking down the differences

Many people confuse SKUs and UPCs because they both serve as product identification numbers, although they are not the same thing. The following is a summary of the major distinctions between the two.

Alphanumeric vs. numeric codes

The SKUs are alphanumeric identifiers that may be any length and include both letters and numbers. Only numerical digits are allowed in UPCs, which have a maximum length of 12 digits.

Who creates them

Companies, at first, simply created their own SKUs according to policies and ideas that made sense to the folks in charge of inventory.

GS1 establishes the rules for creating UPCs. A company must apply for and purchase a licensed UPC from GS1 in order to obtain a UPC for one of its goods.


Because SKUs are readily replaceable, a company may modify or remove them as it sees fit. While renaming your entire assortment of goods may be challenging (depending on how many you have), as long as your style is consistent, adding, removing, and/or changing SKUs in your catalog is simple.

If the UPCs are deleted, the product will stop functioning. A UPC is a one-time-use number that cannot be altered once assigned to a product. It’s also difficult to insert new UPCs, depending on which company prefix capacity plan you initially signed up for (more about that later).

Internal vs. external use

Internal usage of SKUs is ideal for inventory management, tracking, and organizing. Because merchant-specific SKU creation rules and codes are unique, they have no meaning to other enterprises.

Because they are permanent and worldwide recognized, UPCs are perfect for external usage. Because you can take ownership of a product in the broader domain of business, UPCs allow everyone a simple method to keep track of the same items as they move through many hands on their way to consumers.


Barcodes, like SKUs and UPCs, are used by a wide range of organizations — not just retail companies. As a result, barcodes are not always the same thing as SKUs and UPCs.

A barcode, rather, is a device that complements or “rephrases” an SKU or UPC number by converting it into a visual, scannable form.

Barcodes may be assigned to items, but they are not required. A business would generally use barcodes on its products if it wants to automate inventory management procedures using a barcode scanner and automatically update data in an inventory management software system.

The first digits of the GS1 UPCs, on the other hand, always have unique barcodes that are just as significant as the 12-digit codes. Because UPC codes alone are nearly useless, it is almost necessary for businesses to print their UPC barcodes on their goods labels.

Essentially, with vertical UPC scanning, each manufacturer is able to monitor the goods inside their plants. This provides for more consistent product identification and tracking, since every company utilizes the same UPC to identify the same item. Read about 3PL.