Do I Need a UPC Bar-code?

I wanted to answer a reader's question. Its a question that we frequently get from designers so I figured you will all benefit.
Q. What’s the skinny on bar codes/upc codes. Do I need to buy these for my hang tags?
A. To answer the question I’d like to first explain what a UPC code is and why it is used.
A UPC, Universal Product Code, is a bar code that encodes product information (company, product style, size, color, etc.) in a visual pattern that can be read electronically. For example, major department stores who have an electronic point of sale system at the checkout use UPCs to keep track of their stock, sales, and to reorder products by scanning the bar-code.

There are 2 formats of UPC codes:

  1. Dimension (linear) code – Black lines with white spaces in between which are for the machines to “read” and an x-digit (usually 12). These are usually seen on products you buy in the supermarket or department stores. To find out more on how it works read this.
  2. Dimension code – A square pixelated image usually is seen on movie tickets etc.

How to obtain a UPC code: Only GS1 US can issue your company a globally unique "GS1 Company Prefix" that is used to create UPC numbers. This expense depends on the number of products that you are looking to code and is a combination of an initial fee + annual renewal fee, it can get pricey for a new line. Check the prices here.
Do you need UPC code?  Now that we know all this info, let’s examine if you need to obtain a UPC for your fashion products.
The main determinant is how you plan on selling and distributing your product:

  • If you are selling products directly to customers (on your website, private events, etc.) – you don’t need it. NOTE: If you are looking to sell through Amazon, Amazon does require you to have UPC codes.
  • If you are selling wholesale to small boutiques – most likely you will not need it (unless they specifically ask for it you don’t need to offer it).
  • If you are selling to a big retailer/distributor such as a big department store or any major national retailer - you will most likely need to have UPC codes; HOWEVER, check with the retailer first if you are required to have them. Major retailers will provide you with their shipping guide along with their order where this info will be included and if not you can always ask your buyer.

Hope this helps clear the issue for you!