Which Barcodes for Order Fulfilment: EAN or UPC?

Hopefully, you are already using barcodes for order fulfilment. If not, you are at risk of upsetting your customers by sending them the wrong items!

Barcodes are essential for the accurate shipping of orders. They stop the risk of customers getting the wrong product.

But which barcodes should you use and what is the difference between EAN types and UPC?

What is a barcode?

Barcodes are either square or rectangular images. The image contains information in machine readable format. Think of it like a font.

The information converts into a pattern of parallel lines. The lines vary in width according to the character they represent. 

Barcodes accurately identify a product. Which is why they are used extensively in warehouses and retail.

The difference between EAN and UPC

EAN and UPC-A (typically called UPC) do have identical line patterns and under the bonnet they are both 13 characters long.  So in that sense, they’re the same.

However the difference is in how they show the information in the human-readable numbers below the barcode

The 13 characters are:

- A country code of origin (single digit)

- A category number, or system number (single digit

- An ID number (10 digits) – the core “unique” bit

- A check digit based on the previous numbers (single digit)

The UCC (code council in the USA) decided that as the country code for the USA is 0 and the category number “doesn’t matter” for uniqueness, the first two digits could be ignored. 

Additionally, the check digit could be shown at the end, but to the right hand side.   

That results in displaying the 10-digit “product code”. In the US, this was the maximum length most systems were configured to use as a “product code”.  

So, people think that UPC is only 10 or 11 digits, but it’s not!

For example, when a UPC barcode is scanned in a US store, their system reads 13 characters. But, depending on their purpose, the first two and last one digits can be omitted. So the result “seen” by their computer is the 10-digit product code.

For example, when a UPC barcode is scanned in a US store, their system reads 13 characters. But, depending on their purpose, the first two and last one digits can be omitted. So the result “seen” by their computer is the 10-digit product code.

As the human code looks like it’s only 10 digits, that’s what shop assistants key in if the scan fails.

But the truth remains that both symbologies are 13 digits long and are capable of storing the same data.

The only difference is that when you apply for a new barcode number for any given item, if you request an EAN you’ll be given an underling number with 13 digits, and if you request a UPC-A then you’ll be given one with just 12 digits (the first digit being presumed to be a 0).

European systems will usually scan and show all 13 digits regardless of whether the leading 2 digits are zeros. Whereas some scanners and US equipment will truncate those leading zeros.  

The good news is that most scanners these days can be configured for either use.

Why do myWarehouse insist on all products having barcodes?

  • Improved Accuracy: Humans make mistakes and sending the wrong item to a client’s customer is not an option. Much better to scan everything during and before despatch to be 100% sure.

  • Immediate Availability: As all your products have barcodes we know exactly how many and where they all are

  • Less product knowledge required. We currently store more than 200,000 different items and it’s not workable to rely on staff remembering which product belongs to which client. Let alone what the differences are!

  • Enhanced training time: we can thus train our staff in the pick and pack process quickly and safeguard the accuracy for all our clients

  • Improved stock control: Scanning products is quicker than looking in detail at every one. Goods in processing is faster and accurate with barcodes.

  • Barcodes are cheap or can be free. Most products are already produced with barcodes these days. Products without barcodes can easily and cheaply get barcodes so their products can sold all over the world.

Barcodes for Amazon

Amazon too insist on all products having barcodes.

They can also work with both EAN or UPC

Is a SKU the same as barcode?

No, but frequently they have the same information.

SKU’s tend to be specific to the owner of the product. Whereas barcodes relate only to the product.

For example, a barcode is printed on an existing product that you have imported and you cannot change it (except sticking a new label on top!). But you prefer your SKU’s to be identifiable by just looking at the reference. In order to quickly identify your products you may want to use your own classification method, such as products prefixed with SH for Shirts and SO for Socks etc

An easier way of thinking about SKU’s and barcodes is that SKU’s tend to be used for internal identification and barcodes are for external use.

But in the myWarehouse world, if you want to use the barcode data as a sku that’s fine

In summary

Long story short, for those who are doing business exclusively in the USA/Canada then a UPC is a safer choice as it displays more conventionally in that marketplace.  But for everyone else, EAN is the way to go.  

One final thought….if a UPC code that’s manually keyed needs to be “turned into” an EAN, you can just add a 0 to the front.  So any manufacturers who might have a load of “12-digit” UPCs loaded onto a system can add a 0 to make EANs.

Where can you get free barcodes?



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