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SKU vs UPC: What's the Difference in 2024?

2.5 Minutes

In this article we explore the difference between UPC and SKU codes and uncover the main differences between the two. Read on to learn which one is right for you.

difference between sku and upc

What is a UPC?

The Universal Product Code (UPC) is a standardized barcoding system widely used in North America for tracking products in stores. These codes can commonly be found on most retail products, from food items to electronics, serving as a unique identifier for each product. They help retailers efficiently manage inventory and facilitate the checkout process.

Unique Characteristics of UPC:

Universal Standard: UPCs are universally standardized, meaning a particular UPC will represent the same product across all stores in the U.S. and Canada.

12-Digit Number: A typical UPC consists of a 12-digit number, which includes information about the manufacturer and the specific product.

Barcode Representation: The UPC is usually represented by a barcode that is scanned at the point of sale.

Administered by GS1: The creation and administration of UPCs are overseen by GS1, an international organization responsible for ensuring unique product identification.

is sku and upc the same


What is an SKU (Stock Keeping Unit)?

An SKU, or Stock Keeping Unit, is a unique alphanumeric code assigned by retailers to distinguish different items in their inventory. Unlike UPCs, SKUs are not standardized across the industry and can vary from one retailer to another. They help retailers manage stock levels, order replenishments, and analyze sales data.

Unique Characteristics of SKU:

Retailer Specific: Each retailer can have their own unique SKU for a product, even if the product itself is identical across different stores.

Alphanumeric Code: SKUs can consist of both letters and numbers, tailored to suit a retailer's organizational needs.

Flexible Design: Retailers can design their SKUs based on a variety of factors such as product type, size, color, or manufacturer.

Internal Use: SKUs are primarily used for internal purposes, aiding in inventory management, order processing, and sales analysis.

upc code vs sku


UPC vs SKU: What’s the Difference?

While both UPC and SKU are critical for product identification and inventory management, they serve different purposes and have unique characteristics. Here’s a detailed comparison:


UPC: Typically a series of parallel lines of varying thicknesses and spacings, resembling the common barcode.

SKU: An alphanumeric code that might be represented as a barcode or simply printed on product labels.

Data Capacity:

UPC: Has a fixed length of 12 digits.

SKU: Variable in length, depending on the retailer's preference and can range from 4 to 40 characters or more.

Data Type:

UPC: Encodes numeric data, representing the manufacturer and the specific product.

SKU: Can be entirely numeric, entirely alphabetic, or a mix of both.


UPC: Globally unique, ensuring that the same product from the same manufacturer will have an identical UPC everywhere.

SKU: Unique to each retailer, meaning two businesses can assign the same SKU to different products.


UPC: Used globally in retail environments for product identification at the point of sale, ensuring consistency across retailers.

SKU: Primarily used for internal inventory management, order processing, and reporting within an individual business.

Origin and History:

UPC: The first UPC scanner was installed at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in 1974, marking the beginning of its widespread adoption.

SKU: Originates from the retail and warehousing industry, developed to meet the specific needs of individual businesses for tracking inventory.

We hope that our SKU vs UPC article has now left you with a better understanding of the main differences between SKU and UPC codes and you now understand that while similar, they are not the same.

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